Today’s readings call us to more closely consider how we fast and what we are fasting for. When I was younger, I thought fasting was only about what had to be given up. We would make a big deal out of discussing what we intended to give up for Lent that year. Sometimes it was something superfluous in our lives (sweets, a distracting hobby, perhaps meat), sometimes it was something difficult, but needed (less coffee, not smoking, less drinking). It took me many years to realize that fasting was so much more than just giving something up. In learning that, I also learned how communal fasting is. Isaiah reminds us this week what authentic fasting is:
“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” This springtime conversation starter makes an appearance in my life every year as it comes time for the Lenten season to begin. I am always tempted to try and find the “perfect” sacrifice: something hard, but not too hard, something unique, but not too weird: a manageable adjustment. It’s easy to get caught up in this selection process, to make Lent into a personal challenge that might bring along with it a sense of accomplishment. But this is not exactly the point of Lent.
Matthew’s Gospel is a fitting introduction to Ash Wednesday. Jesus’ admonition addresses the very essence of Christianity – do the right thing because it is right, not for the anticipated rewards. In the Old Testament, the Lord offered such benefits as abundant harvests, victorious battles, and numerous progeny for these actions.