Is 58:1-9; Ps 51:3-6,18,19; Mk 9:14-15: What a rare thing indeed: a heart contrite and humbled. Yet, this is what Lent is supposed to produce. In this desert retreat, we are bound to encounter our demons and our weakness, and it is just such encounters that are supposed to initiate a conversion of heart. Of course, as it always the danger with spiritual exercises, we can become self-justifying and arrogant. So the liturgy for these days between Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent help us to organize and clarify our efforts for this journey into the desert. The constant song of any contrite and humbled heart is, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness.” We need the compassion of our Savior who alone can wash us with the blood and water rushing out of his side. However, to even ask for mercy demands that we acknowledge our offenses and keep our sins in mind. Against the LORD who first loved us and constantly calls us to himself in love, against him only have we sinned and done evil in his sight. The only sacrifice a sinner can make is the sacrifice of a contrite spirit and a humbled heart. This is the one sacrifice that the LORD will never spurn. It is the Spirit of God who alone can accomplish such a converted heart worthy to offer to the Father in the Son. The Prophet Isaiah warns us about the danger of spiritual entitlement that often afflicts those who begin to recognize their guilt and confess their sin. The Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel identifies the fasting we need during Lent; it is the only fasting necessary for the followers of Christ. We must fast from sin. Only this penance will be sufficient to support our desert prayer all through Lent.
The prophet is commanded to cry out and tell the house of Jacob their sins. This part of the prophetic ministry is never easy to do mainly because it is an act of self-recrimination. Most prophets were reluctant to fulfill this duty, at least in the beginning of their ministry. This time Isaiah must take on the ever-complaining people of God. From their desert journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, these former slaves have been slow to understand and stubborn of heart. At this point, they do not ask about the lack of food or water, but they do want to know, “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” We hear echoes of this attitude in our own day—after all, I’ve done for you LORD how dare you not answer me yesterday? The LORD responds through Isaiah’s preaching to both our ancestors and to us. Your fasting, indeed all your devotional practices, are suspect. Just because you bow your heads and lie in sackcloth and ashes, you expect me to be moved. You expect me to do your will because you have impressed me by your holiness. The Prophet goes on. Such practices are not at all the kind of fast acceptable to the LORD. Indeed, the LORD wants us to act as he does; He wants us to release those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, set the oppressed free, bind up all their wounds, and cloth the naked. Only then will a new day dawn for you and all you love. Only then will your wounds quickly be healed. Only then shall your vindication march before you. Only then will the LORD be your rear guard. Indeed, on that day you shall call out in your need, and the LORD will cry out with great delight, “Here I am!”
These disciples of John sound like our ancestors in the desert and at the time of Isaiah. They sound like us when we feel entitled. Their complaint takes its authority from the Pharisees who demand great feats of piety and fasting from their disciples too. The Lord Jesus responds with a clear understanding of who he is. I’m not the forerunner; I’m not a card-carrying member of the Pharisee party either. I am the bridegroom. I am the One for whom these others have waited and are still waiting. The party has begun. The celebration of endless joy has begun in my arrival. However, not long from now, those who do not recognize me will take me away. Then, my disciples will fast. They will fast because they have already begun to taste the glory for which they have waited, and now they want to keep that longing alive. They will know that their fasting is not to impress me, but it is for their own good. Then they will know that to hunger and thirst for holiness is the one desire I alone can fulfill. Their fasting is not to manipulate the divine, but to keep alive in their flesh the union with the divine bridegroom who has come and who will come again—when he is least expected.