Wednesday, March 28 (O.S., March 15), 2018: Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Holy Martyrs Agapius, Publius, Timolaus, Romulus, Alexander, Alexander, Dionysius and Dionysius of Palestine († 303); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexis († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Michael († 1940); Hieromartyr Alexander of Side, in Pamphylia († 270-275); Martyr Nicander of Egypt († c. 302); New Martyr Manuel of Crete; Venerable Nicander of Gorodnoezersk.
As we come to the end of the Great Fast, God’s words in Isaiah can feel like a slap in the face. God doesn’t care about how strictly I fast. What matters to God is that whether I “loose the bonds of wickedness” that grip my heart and oppress my neighbor.
Have I undone the “thongs of the yoke … to let the oppressed go free”? Have I shared my “bread with the hungry,” brought the homeless into my home, clothed the naked and all while also caring for my family? Have I, in other words, fulfilled the commandments Jesus gave me at the beginning of Great Fast on the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)?
Mother Maria of Paris writes that Christians are “called to organize a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for the children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness.” Whether we do this “on an individual or social level” what we do must “be based on love” for our neighbor. Such love, the saint concludes, is demanding and requires from us an “ascetic ministry to his material needs, attentive and responsible work, a sober and unsentimental awareness of our strength” and an accurate and truthful evaluation of the “true usefulness” of our efforts on behalf of others.
Fasting, and indeed all our asceticism, is but a preparation for love.
Our ascetical efforts throughout the Great Fast have been at the service of removing from our own hearts anything the would limit our willingness to love sacrificially. This why, after Isaiah’s stern words on fasting, the Church puts before us the example of the Patriarch Joseph.
Betrayed by his brothers, he is sold into slavery, and is falsely accused of attempted rape. Still he eventually rises to be the second most powerful man in the most powerful kingdom of earth: Egypt. By the time of today’s reading, whatever resentment and bitterness he may have had as a young man, has been washed away.
Joseph was healed by prayer, fasting, and work.
Throughout his time in Egypt, he never forgot his God. To keep the Law, he abstained from the rich food and drink enjoyed by the Egyptians. And he worked to make himself a profitable servant even to those who mistreated him. In this way, to return momentarily to Isaiah, he anticipates the God’s promise to Israel that will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ:
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”
Joseph stands in stark contrast to the wicked man in Proverbs. He also represents for each of us a choice as we now being to shift our focus from the Great Fast to the events of Great and Holy Week.
In the days leading up to the Resurrection, will I be revealed as a “scoffer,” a “haughty man who acts with arrogant pride”? Or will I, like Joseph, forgive my enemies? Will I “do good to those who hate” me, “bless those who curse” me, “and pray for those who spitefully use” me (Luke 6:27-28, NKJV)?
The sign that I have taken the role of the scoffer is this: My asceticism has become an end in itself. When this happens, Mother Maria writes, “All the ugliness of this world, its sores and its pain, are pushed to one side and obscured so that they will not disturb” me. To the scoffer “even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, acquires an aura of beauty, inviting admiration and delight” but is emptied of any power to transform me into one who loves as God loves.
What about love? It “is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever.”
Our asceticism, our wealth, our power these are all just for this one thing: That we become willing and able to receive and to give God’s love.