Both today’s readings speak of fasting. In some languages, Lent is called the “great fast” or simply “fast-time” – the opposite of “breakfast”, “break-fast”. Fasting is part of the Lenten story.
Hasn’t this whole pandemic, in a way, been a season of fasting? An imposed, collective Lenten fast? The word pandemic is used of a disease that affects “all” (pan) the “people” (demic, from demos, the people). Thank God, the virus itself has only affected a minority – bad enough – but all of us have been and are affected by it. We’ve all entered into a time and a season of deprivation, of going without. We’re deprived of so many features of normal life: fasting from ordinary patterns of working and schooling and study, from travel, from natural contact with each other, even members of our own family. “Is that the sort of fast that pleases me?” says the Lord. This is not voluntary fasting done for love of God; it’s imposed; it’s a form of self-defence really; it’s something we have to go through and do for each other until things improve. And as Christians and Catholics we’re enduring another fast too: the Eucharistic Bridegroom has been taken away. Though every single day the Sacrifice of the Mass has been offered and God’s mercy, God’s Holy Spirit, been called down on the world, many of God’s People have had to fast from the Bread of Life. “Is that the sort of fast that pleases me?”
So well before Ash Wednesday we were already in a Lent, we have been there, in some shape or form, since last March. But perhaps that optic, that that comparison to Lent, may help us. Perhaps this unexpected Lent is readying us for an unexpected Easter. Perhaps even the Eucharistic fast we’ve had to undergo hides a positivity. In the Roman liturgy there has always been one day of Eucharistic fasting: Holy Saturday, the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It’s the day the Bridegroom is taken away and laid in the tomb, the day he is mysteriously occupied with the underworld. Holy Saturday is the pause, the stillness, the sabbatical lockdown between death and resurrection. Holy Communion is never received on Holy Saturday, except by way of viaticum, if we are dying. Perhaps if we are all in a reluctant Lent, we believers are also all in that strange Saturday. And perhaps something is being prepared, something is coming our way. The women followers of Jesus, without presumably breaking the Sabbath rest, managed to prepare ointments and spices (cf. Lk 23:56), getting ready to tend the body of Christ. During this slow Saturday of ours, I wonder, what can we can prepare for the future? What good things to ease a wounded world?
In the Gospel about the Bridegroom, Jesus of course is speaking of himself. He’s the Bridegroom. He’s with his attendants, his disciples, during his public ministry. He will be taken away in his Passion, but he will return in his Resurrection. Surely – to go no further – there’ll be some beautiful celebrations ahead of us, when the masks can be binned and we sing out. Surely we will be able to gather again and look at each other and touch each other. “Trials”, trials in the biblical sense – which is what this is – are always measured, limited, 40 days or whatever. They end. God willing, to mention nothing else, there should be two priestly ordinations this year. God willing, we can make something of that. “Cry, says Isaiah, and the Lord will answer; call, and he will say, ‘I am here’”.
And in the meantime, in this unwanted fast, what does the Lord say? “Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me?” There is a fast that pleases the Lord. The fast he asks is the works of mercy: helping untie one another’s knots or share each other’s burdens, offering food and shelter and clothes and not, turning away from our neighbour. This is always do-able. We can do this through the charities there are, through SCIAF and Mary’s Meals and so many others. But there’s scope just with the people around us, the people we irritate every day. Perhaps we can slim our capacity for being a pain or lose a little of the weight of our self-importance. Isaiah chimes with how Pope Francis sees the future for humanity beyond Covid: repairing the social fabric, reviving the aspiration to fraternity, recovering kindness. We can refuse to be drawn into the fractiousness around us, and try to be more care-ful of each other. At the beginning of the Gospels we meet two of the future disciples casting a net in the lake, and then two more repairing their net. Eastertide and beyond is the time for casting, Lent the time for repairing. And at the end of the Gospel, there’s that scene of the disciples hauling in the fish, “and the net was not broken”. May the Church not be broken!
A monk was once asked, What’s your favourite line in Scripture? “Come and have breakfast”, he said. That’s from that same, concluding Eastertide Gospel. The Bridegroom has returned and has lit a fire on the beach, the barbecue is ready and the disciples can “break their fast”. We will return to the Eucharist with joy, as Cardinal Sarah has said. In the meantime, though, let’s transform our imposed, unwanted Covid Lent, our long unholy Saturday, into something “acceptable to the Lord”: spices and ointments, kindness and care.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen