The ancient Israelites were without doubt a fickle and ungrateful people. And yet occasionally we can feel sorry for them as they try to be faithful to God’s will for them. In the first reading we hear how the prophet Isaiah tells them how displeased God is with them. The people have been fasting but their penance hasn’t pleased God. Through the prophet God tells the people what sort of fasting he wants: “Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me: to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to share your bread with the hungry”.
Fasting for the sake of fasting is very limited in its effectiveness. It needs to be linked with some other action that has meaning beyond the simple experience of hunger; otherwise fasting becomes a glorified diet or an easy day in the kitchen.
This is why the Church asks us to link our Lenten fasting with prayer and almsgiving. When we take up these three practices together, we open the door for God to work powerfully in us and through us.
The retired Pope Benedict XVI, in his Lenten Message for 2009 said that fasting “nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and to be fed by his saving word.” When we fast this way we are naturally led to prayer which satisfies “the hunger and thirst for God.” Then, as we add prayer to our fasting, we find God opening our hearts to all those in need. He gives us a sense of compassion for them that moves us to serve them. The Pope went on to say: “Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother”.
And, of course, we shouldn’t only fast from food; we should fast from negative thinking, from anxiety, from gossip and a sharp tongue. The possibilities are endless, because God can bless us in so many different ways.