Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-9 / Matthew 5:43 - 6:4

Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let those that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden

We might be inclined in light of the words of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah to rethink our classic Lenten fasting. In the scheme of things, is holding back from meat on Fridays really proportionate to crying needs in our world, as pressing today as they were for the prophets of old: Deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harborless into your house: when you shall see one naked, cover him and despise not your own flesh. Indeed, God seems decidedly displeased with a weekly observance of fasting, giving preference to the works of justice for the poor. Is this such a fast as I have chosen, he asks, for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Does this mean that the progressive critique is right, and that our weekly Friday abstinence from flesh and fowl might be better replaced with a few hours volunteering at the local soup kitchen?

Perhaps, however, we need to attend a little closer to the labor, often hard, back-breaking labor, which brings food to our table. The relative ease so many of us have in acquiring more than our daily bread may easily blind us to the many people, some willing and happy to serve, others with little else by way of choice, who bring the food to our table. There are the workers at the market, of course, who shelve and sell us the food, the drivers and engineers and even captains who haul the food distances great and small, across land, sea, and sky. Closer to the earth are the farmers, who plan, and toil, and wait, and rise early for a hard day, always dependent on those same forces which elude us as easily as our ancestors of old: the sun, the wind, the rain and snow. All of this labor goes into every bite we take, even if that bite is of an apple or a carrot, a potato or zucchini.

Consider, however, the deeper sacrifice made by our companions on the earth, fellow sharers in the covenant made by God after the Flood, on whom God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall even as he does for the sons of Adam. I mean, of course, the beasts of the earth. From the dawn of human society, these creatures have labored for our good. They have given their wool and skins for our protection as well as our comfort and yielded their milk for our nourishment. They have placed their greater strength under our yokes to pull the plows that serve ultimately not their needs, but to serve their masters. Finally, for some of them, many of them, and in the present day, far more for every son or daughter of Noah than in any time past, they have spilled their blood and given their flesh for us to eat.

Has God delivered them into our hands? Indeed, he has, from the dawn of time. Has the covenant with Noah not also delivered them to us for food? Indeed it has, even if only because of the waywardness of the human heart and at the cost of seeing in the eyes of the beasts wariness, pain, and fear more than happiness and delight, which if irrational is no less deeply felt. We have it is true been given the beasts both to work to serve our needs, and even their very lives to serve us as we require. This is the end for which they were delivered into our hands, and we ought not to blush in asserting our dominion.

Yet, is not the quality of lordship judged at least as much in how it exercises restraint as in the extent that it makes it rights known? Do we not love a king all the more, admire his power and virtue, when he behaves with clemency than with assertions of privilege? Our tables are set with the sweat of our fellow men and the blood of gentle beasts, and such is the way of the world since the loss of Eden and the cleansing of the Flood. We have, in the passing of years become coarsened to the cries of both. If we would learn to be merciful, truly merciful, with that same bounty as our Father in heaven, who makes His sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust, then we must learn through an application of that mercy to those who cannot in any way speak for themselves and who are altogether under our dominion and subject to our power.

If only once every week, can we not afford a clemency for the beasts, our sharers in the covenant, who have labored so much for our good? Can we not, in our fasting, declare a general amnesty for the beasts and birds of our farmlands? Dare we to hope that in drawing back from what we can rightly and without fear of retribution claim as our own, we might grow closer to that love by which God bids us to love even our enemies and those who hate us? Might we not dream that this small act of kindness to the beasts of the earth will be echoed from the vaults of heaven? Then shall you call, and the Lord shall hear; you shall cry, and He shall say: Here I am. For I the Lord your God am merciful.


Heather Barrett said...

Thank you for this homily. I shall recall it whenever I am tempted to give up fasting/abstinence from meat. It's easy to forget where our food comes from, and to take it for granted.

God be with you,

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

Dear Heather,

I am glad that the homily was helpful. Whatever stance we have taken on choosing to eat (or not to eat) meat in our lives, we should never be unaware of the moral and spiritual implications of the table. The Gospel is indeed not about food or drink, but that does not absolve us from being attentive to how our eating and drinking impacts both ourselves and our neighbor.

Pax tecum,
Dominic Holtz, O.P.

Mike T said...

I have a certain fear that I associate with the subordinating of fasting to almsgiving.

When the costly jar of spikenard was broken, the Lord said, "The poor you have with you always."

But our secular leaders have undertaken the elimination of poverty in the name of humanism. Is it a matter of faith that they are doomed to fail, or is it possible that by the year 3000, they will have eliminated physical and psychological suffering as we know it?

This may seem a silly question to ask in the light of our current economic crisis. But suppose the economy had just continued to get better ... and better and better.

In the absence of anyone who needs our almsgiving, will we still recognize a need for fasting and prayer? Would a secular utopia sound the death knell for our spirituality?

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

An interesting question. Certainly Jesus' words here do not amount to a command (i.e. he did not say "Make sure always to have the poor with you.") So, eliminating poverty is a laudable and proper goal. Of course, even in the absence of poverty as such, there will still be people in need, so we should have no fear of the loss of the occasions for some kind of almsgiving.

Perhaps the deeper worry about a secular utopia would be that, at the expense of things far more important, we would seek to create a place where there is no physical need unmet. In some sense, this is the dilemma of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World". Huxley was by no means a Christian, but he did see the way that the desire for comfort and peace might lead to a society in which the more spiritual goods, which themselves produce a certain degree of loss and pain, might be systematically eliminated.

So, while we should most certainly seek to eliminate poverty as we are able, we are right to worry about what price we are asked to pay in order to do so.