A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

Desert Places

“Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” -Isaiah 35:6-7

My brother lives in Arizona, where they are currently enjoying the chilly winter temperature of 72°. A couple years ago, I went to visit him in June, when it gets to be a lovely 115°. One morning, we decided to go hiking in the beautiful desert mountains. We got up really early to beat the heat—well, to try to beat the heat, anyway.

As we were hiking, I kept saying that it didn’t feel that hot, even though it was. This was probably because my body associates heat with the sweaty, sticky humidity of New York summers.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car after our hike that I realized how thirsty I was. My throat was really dry, and I was definitely dehydrated.

Has your heart ever felt this way? Sometimes we go about our lives, thinking everything is fine, that we’ve got it, that we’re in control, and then we realize how much we are desperately aching for our Savior.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Or has your heart ever felt like the vast Arizona desert? Dry, cracked, parched, barren. Sometimes in seasons of desolation, pain, or mourning, we can feel like we are stuck in an endless desert. I’ve definitely had those moments of wondering when the drought would end and God would bring a long-awaited reprieve.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Jesus meets us in our desert places. He knows those seasons well. If you are feeling like you’re in a desert season right now, take heart. He is with you. And no matter how painful, lonely, or never-ending it seems, Jesus is bigger. And He is on the way.

There is a beautiful Japanese art form called kintsugi. The artist takes broken ceramics and puts them back together by filling the cracks and places where they broke with gold, turning the art into something even more strikingly marvelous.

kintsugi
Kintsugi art

When Jesus comes to fill in the cracks in our desert hearts, He does the same thing. He redeems our scars, wounds, and dry places by giving us the gift of His whole self and making our scars dazzle with His love.

Let Him fill you today, brothers and sisters.

Hope in the Darkness

And out of gloom and darkness,
the eyes of the blind shall see.
—Isaiah 29:18

Throughout this season of Advent, amid the cold and lingering darkness, we seek out light. We surround ourselves with flickering lights that gleam amidst the night, reminders of hope and beauty even in the darkest places. These lights help prepare our hearts to appreciate with awe and wonder the Light that was born out of darkness, in Bethlehem so long ago.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals two blind men who dared to believe that His powerful Light could permeate their deep, unending darkness. Even though they could not see Jesus, they knew that He was the Lord, for even when we cannot see the sunlight we can feel its rays upon us. They could sense, in Jesus’s presence, a sacredness that drew them in, so much so that they truly believed that He could heal them. By their faith in the impossible, their sight was restored.

Only with the light of faith can we see the world around us clearly. Without a sense of hope in God, we cannot understand our true purpose. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Mary was conceived without original sin. Out of the darkness of Eve came the luminous beauty of Mary, whose fiat made way for our redemption. Do we believe that God can open our eyes to see hope within the darkness? Do we trust that the Light will prevail, even when it seems hidden to us?

As the days grow shorter and shorter this Advent, may the candlelight enkindle within our hearts a hope that endures through the darkness.

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”

Memento Mori

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
—Wisdom 3:1–3

In my catechism class this week, I was teaching about the saints, and my students all wanted to find out which saint’s feast day fell on their birthday. One girl said, “My birthday’s November 2. What feast day is that?”

“Oh, that’s All Souls Day! It’s when we pray for the souls in purgatory,” I answered.

Disappointed, she replied, “That’s…kind of morbid.”

I can understand her reaction—it’s hard to get excited about reflecting on death, especially as a kid on your birthday. It’s a topic that most of us avoid thinking about, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But there has long been a Catholic tradition of meditating on death, not as some kind of penance or self-imposed misery, but rather as a way to transform our fear of death into hope in the Resurrection.

Memento mori—“Remember your death”—is a refrain to keep us grounded amid the distractions of this world. Thinking about death does not seem appealing to us, but ignoring it will not make it go away. Death is an inevitable reality, and it’s not something we can control. But if we approach it from a perspective of Christian hope, deeply rooted in the promises Christ has made to us, we will begin to see that we don’t have to be so fearful of death. It is more of a beginning than an ending, an obscure mystery that only begins to make any sense to us when we see it through the lens of the Gospel. Meditating on death is itself an act of hope: that as we look more deeply into this mystery, there will be more to discover than bleak, existential materialism. There will be redemption and rebirth.

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a young sister with the Daughters of Saint Paul, has been keeping a ceramic skull on her desk for the past year as a reminder of death and tweeting about Memento Mori each day. She says:

Death, I think, is a very, very unpleasant topic, especially if you don’t believe in God. When I was an atheist, it was something I definitely did not want to think about because it’s the annihilation of the self. But for people of faith, it has a totally different dimension. We’re able to think about the reality of death and how it’s been transformed by Jesus.

Meditating on death not only lessens our fear; it also increases our sense of urgency to answer the callings God has given us. We are called to become saints, and we have no time to waste. We can go forward to carry out this calling filled with joy, not with fear, confident that if we are united with Christ in death, we will also be united with Him in resurrection.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
—Romans 6:5

The Heart of an Only Son

Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain,
and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
As he drew near to the gate of the city,
a man who had died was being carried out,
the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
A large crowd from the city was with her.
When the Lord saw her,
he was moved with pity for her and said to her,
“Do not weep.”
He stepped forward and touched the coffin;
at this the bearers halted,
and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
The dead man sat up and began to speak,
and Jesus gave him to his mother.  –Luke 7:11-15

*            *            *

At first she was just a little confused, having trouble remembering the passwords to her computer and her phone.  She had lost some weight; she was very tired; she had a persistent cough that was strong enough to trigger the automatic water faucet a few yards away from her bed in the ER.  But nobody seemed particularly concerned.  “There are some anomalies in her blood work—we’d like to keep her overnight for observation—but don’t worry; she’s not being admitted.  She’ll likely go home in the morning.”

My mother had walked into the ER, normally if somewhat reluctantly. But the next day she was stumbling a little, the bloodwork was still a little “off.”  She was admitted.  On day two she needed assistance walking, and by day three she was a little confused as to where she was.  “How is Teresa going to get into the school if they lock it up at 3:00 p.m.?” she worried.

By the weekend she could not get out of bed unassisted.  Each day brought dramatic decline, both physical and mental.  “Do you know who is there?” the nurse asked my mother, pointing to where I stood by her bedside, as I had every day for a week.  She looked up with benign bewilderment.  “No,” she said, “I don’t know who that is…”

But she could figure out certain things. “If they ask you where you are, tell them you are at XYZ Hospital!” she would tell me and anyone who would listen.  But then add with a devious grin, “even though we know it’s not true…”

An MRI revealed part of the cause: a shower of strokes over both hemispheres of her brain.  “I’ve never seen anything like this!” reported the doctors with amazement.  Her bloodwork continued to reveal more strangeness, markers that didn’t match, and the doctors began to look for a cause for this “mystery illness.”

A few weeks in, still confused, she began to complain of stomach pain.  This was a new symptom.  “It’s probably just constipation,” they said.  “Or she’s just confused.  Don’t worry.”  This continued for three days, until a new blood draw revealed a drastic drop in her hemoglobin. By then she was crying, begging to be given something for the pain.

After looking at the CT-Scan, the doctors finally gave us permission to worry.  She had an internal bleed the size of a watermelon, and was being rushed down to ICU.  “I have to be honest—she may not make it through the night.”

*            *            *

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes face-to-face with family grief.  From within the crowd that accompanied Him—many no doubt begging Him for favors, answers, healings—He sees a coffin being carried.  His heart is moved, not just by the young man’s loss of life, but by the grief of the widowed mother.  Why does this touch him so much?  What is it that so moves the heart of the Unmoved Mover?

Father Paul Scalia writes:

By His divine nature He performs the miracle.  But He is moved to do so in His human nature.  That He was moved with pity refers to His Sacred Heart and His capacity to be moved with human love.  Saint Luke tells us that the deceased was “the only son of His mother, and she as a widow.”  (Lk 7:12) This describes Our Lord Himself, and His mother.  So it should not surprise us that He turns first to the widow, in whom He sees the anticipation of Mary’s sorrow.  “Do not weep,” He tells her—as if to tell His own Mother.  Yes—Our Lord is all-powerful.  But in His sacred humanity He places Himself within our reach—so that our misery moves Him to act on our behalf.1 (emphasis added)

Jesus touches the coffin, and the man is raised back to life.  Saint Luke then uses an interesting expression, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Father Scalia notes that Jesus does not “allow the miracle of raising a man from the dead to obscure the importance of the man’s human relationships.”

We know that God is love, but the words do not always reach us.  Some time ago I watched a grim-faced woman on the subway who barked at high volume: “Jeee-zus loves you!  Jeee-zus loves you!”  I watched as people rolled or averted their eyes.  Some squirmed; a man across from me seem apoplectic with agitation at her words.  I, who claim to be willing to die to defend such a pronouncement, found myself cringing and sliding down in my seat.

Yet I’ve also seen those same words move men twice my size and strength, and reduce them to tears.  “Jesus loves you!”  When these words become real, when the hearer is convinced that God’s love is in fact profound and personal, something greater than resurrection happens in the human heart.

This weekend Father Columba spoke about the power of Words of Knowledge.  God uses human instruments, to speak into human hearts, often by revealing small, intimate details that only a concerned Father would know to reveal.  It is one thing to believe in a love that is generic and amorphous.  It is something much more when we realize that His concern and care for us is concrete, specific and personal.

Like the widowed mother, Our Lady would also be given her Son, there under the cross.  We see her suffering, that Michelangelo carved into the Pieta.  She held in her arms the lifeless Body of one who died that we might know that personal love.  But she received Him forever when He rose from the dead.

*            *            *

I was there in the ICU that night as my mother journeyed to the edge of death, but came back.  I was there again at his bedside, several months later, when my father took that same journey, but he did not return.

There was much suffering that year; it would be months before my mother returned home, her illness still classified as a mystery.  There were many days in which I thought that I could not endure more, that there was nothing left in me to die.

But one of the beautiful things about hitting rock bottom is that you discover just Who that Rock Is.  We are never alone.

 

 

Notes:

1Scalia, Rev. Paul. That Nothing May Be Lost. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017) p. 134