Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator 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 for help, and [God] will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
These words feel a little different, here in the hospital. The ashes of reminder are already on the forehead of every person we meet: the ashes of fear, loneliness, confusion, sickness, death. To draw near to them, to offer a not-forsaken moment to them, this is a fast acceptable to the Lord. In choosing to see rather than walk on by, in choosing to walk slowly alongside the man with the IV pole, in choosing to let our hearts be broken by another’s grief, we are choosing to fast from unthinking acceptance of our own comfort, privilege, and health. We are choosing to not hide from those who are our kin, in the family of those made in the image of God.
We don’t have to look too far in order to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Out of our not-knowing, out of our need to respond when there are no answers, we are lucky to need to seek God’s guidance continually. As we do, our faces and hearts become mirrors, reflecting the Light we love, a shining even in gloom, even on the day of ashes, even in the place of ashes.
How shall we go, then, as we meet the ashes of reminder? Let’s remember these words from a little later in Isaiah, from chapter 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me … sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn … to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
As you go, giving garlands and gladness to those who mourn, may the Lord guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; then you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.