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The WORD. The TRUTH.

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Homily for March 4, 2022, Friday after Ash Wednesday, Is. 58:1-9a & Mt 9:14-15

I hope you don’t mind that I am repeating this homily, which I gave on this same day of Friday after Ash Wed last year.

Once I was invited by a friend to a birthday party for his younger brother who had a stage 4 cancer. They wanted it to be festive because they were aware that it could be their brother’s last birthday. It so happened, that right at that time when lunch was about to begin, his brother had a cardiac arrest in his bedroom and died in the company of a caregiver. He died on the very day of his birthday, after a long battle with cancer. Since he had requested not to be resuscitated or intubated, they did not bring him to the hospital anymore. The whole festive mood was suddenly turned into gloom.

They did not even have a chance to sing him a birthday song and make him blow the candles on his birthday cake. The party music was replaced by loud wailing in the house by family members who were overwhelmed by the painful loss. It was evident how precious he was to them. At table, all the elaborately prepared food was ready, but nobody was touching it.

When you lose someone so dear to you, somehow you lose your appetite too. No matter how hungry you are, you just cannot get yourself to enjoy the food. Is this what you call fasting? No. It’s what we call GRIEVING.

I remember my stomach grumbling. We were actually holding our plates already. But I couldn’t get myself to eat either when I saw the family grieving.You realize that eating is not just about filling up one’s stomach; it’s also about enjoying the company, the people you are breaking bread with. How could I enjoy their company in this moment of pain? Maybe fasting is really related to the occasional deliberate refusal to touch food. At that moment, it was not because I was not hungry, not because I did not want to partake of it, but because I had decided instead to partake in the family’s grieving.

Could this be what Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples in the Gospel when he asks, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” And then he says, “It is when the bridegroom is taken away from them that they will fast.” I was a guest for the feasting, but the situation had turned it into fasting. Nobody obliged us to fast; in fact I remember my friend asking me to serve myself after I blessed his dead brother. When he could not get me to eat, he wrapped two pieces of chicken galantina and put them in my bag after I embraced his grieving mother and took leave.

Our first reading today is from the prophet Isaiah’s critique of the kind of ritual fasting that the people were doing. The prophet begins by expressing Israel’s lament to God, “Why do we fast and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves and you take no notice of it?” And the prophet replies to the question with another question, speaking on God’s behalf: “Do you think this is the kind of fasting that I want?”

Fasting can be a meaningless exercise, especially if it has no context. Isaiah enumerates the many situations that can provide a meaningful context to the ritual of fasting: by making ourselves aware of the sufferings that other people are going through. Among them, he mentions those bound unjustly, those carrying a heavy yoke, the hungry, the victims of injustice, the homeless, those stripped naked by misfortunes. (Isaiah 58)

Feeling the pain of others as your own, seeing in other people your fellow sufferers and expressing solidarity with them, like the Pope is calling us to do for the Ukrainians. These, for Isaiah are meaningful occasions for fasting.

Fasting is so closely related to feasting. The difference is just one letter: E. I suppose the letter E can stand for EMPATHY. The fasting can eventually turn into feasting only after we have empathized, when we have made ourselves fully aware of what others are going through, when we have refused to allow them to suffer alone. Only empathy can enable us to quietly express an assurance, “I am here with you. You are not alone. I feel your pain. I suffer with you, and I will wait for the right moment to be able to feast with you again. For the moment, I have decided to fast with you.”

This is probably also what God meant when he revealed himself to Moses in Midian through a burning bush and said, “I have seen the affliction of my people. I have heard their cries; I know well they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them.” He was just verbalizing what Moses himself was actually going through.

Remember, Moses himself used to have a good life in the palace of the Pharaoh. But after witnessing the affliction and oppression of the Hebrew slaves, he could not get himself to enjoy it anymore. And so he left the comforts of the palace and fasted in the desert, only to be told by God eventually to return, this time as an agent of liberation.

Only those who can fast with those who suffer can become agents of liberation. Only they can eventually bring consolation to those who are grieving, healing to those who suffer in their woundedness, and light to those in darkness. Only they can turn their fasting into feasting.

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Veritas Editorial

Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

President of Radio Veritas

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