Saturday after Ash Wednesday

If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
      and speaking of wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness,
And your gloom will become like midday.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water
       whose waters do not fail.
                                                       Isaiah 58:9-11 (NASB)

Incline your ear, O Lord,
     and answer me;
For I am afflicted and needy.
Do preserve my soul,
     for I am a godly man;
O my God, save your servant
     who trusts in you.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you I cry all day long.
Make glad the soul of your servant,
For to you O Lord,
      I lift up my soul.
                                                      Psalm 86: 1- 4 (NASB)

.          .         .

Isaiah 58 is so beautiful that I almost want just to type it over again, and more of it. What can I possibly say in addition to ‘the mouth of the Lord’? Or I might just add the passage from Matthew’s gospel that tells of the calling of Levi, and concludes with Jesus’ explanation that he came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Today’s Mass readings are rich, and in some ways quite straightforward: God calls us to receive his mercy. Sinners need it, and the psalmist prays for it. God also calls us to be merciful. So Isaiah reminds us, in the loveliest prose.

That might, though, leave us thinking that we receive mercy and then give it. Maybe (I am sure sometimes this is my unconscious supposition) we should be full before we give–satisfied by God’s mercy, we show that mercy to others. But Isaiah suggests that it doesn’t work that way. Isaiah calls us to ‘satisfy the desire of the afflicted’ from the discomfort of our ‘scorched places’ and in the frailty of our weak bones. The ‘spring of water’ is not what we are before we attend to the needy, but is what God makes in us as we do.

I find this a very hard saying. With four young children–including a toddler and a girl with Down Syndrome who’s just about to enter adolescence–and a challenging job as a lecturer in a theological college, I often feel stretched pretty thin. Usually I feel more like an empty pail than a spring of water. Can I refuse to meditate on my emptiness, and look for the ‘hungry’ and the ‘afflicted’ (‘look out … for the interests of others’ says Philippians 2.4!)? Maybe. Maybe that is what it is, concretely, to ‘lift up my soul’ to the Lord, to trust in God for my help, my strength, and my satisfaction.

Whether I find myself able or not, it seems like Lent is a good time to try.

Deo gratias.

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Friday after Ash Wednesday

Is this not the fast which I choose, 
To loosen the bonds of wickedness, 
To undo the bands of the yoke, 
And to let the oppressed go free 
And break every yoke? 
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry 
And bring the homeless poor into the house; 
When you see the naked, to cover him; 
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 
                                        Isaiah 58:6, 7 (NASB)

Against You, You only, I have sinned 
And done what is evil in Your sight, 
So that You are justified when You speak 
And blameless when You judge. 
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; 
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, 
You will not despise.
                                        Psalms 51 [50]:4, 17 (NASB)


.          .         .

What does the Lord ask of us? The passage from Isaiah emphasises ‘do justice, love mercy’; Psalm 51 reminds us to ‘walk humbly with God’.  Isaiah calls for love of neighbour and care for the poor–which King David failed to exhibit towards Uriah. 

Is that why David describes his sin in this way? ‘Against you, you only, I have sinned’ strikes me as somewhat mistaken. Surely David’s sin is against Bathsheba and Uriah also, maybe even in the first place. But no. God takes responsibility for the care of the poor and the oppressed, and calls us to participate in his love and compassion, and to show his mercy and consolation. Failing to live according to God’s statutes can have a devastating impact on others, and yet our sin is always against God as much as against our fellow human beings. 

Upon being convicted of his great sin, David was perhaps a bit stuck. Although he was king, he had no power to put right what he had done wrong: Uriah was dead, and David was to blame. If forgiveness had to come first from the human victim of his sin, David could not receive forgiveness. Only God, who has the power to create and redeem, can cover our sins. 

I confess I do not particularly like this implication. My instinct about Psalm 51.4 is that it misses the very real and tragic horizontal consequences of our sin. Very often, when we sin, we hurt other people. To those people, I think, we owe an apology. But that is not all: I think we ought to try to make amends. I am the one who is mistaken, though, if I believe that our efforts at restitution actually make anything ‘right’. Absolution for us and healing for those we have hurt both come from God, from God alone. However fully we can pardon, and however generously we make restitution, we cannot fix what our sins have broken. Only God can do that: pardon and restitution are our participation in God’s redemption, not the redemption itself. Even if we do all that Isaiah urges us to do, the light that breaks forth–‘our’ light–is God’s light breaking forth in us. 

And that light shines even in the darkest darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Deo gratias