“Hear, O heaven, and hearken, O earth: for the Lord has spoken, saying, I have begotten and reared up children, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know me, and the people has not regarded me… Your fasting, and rest from work, your new moons also, and your feasts my soul hates: you have become loathsome to me; I will no more pardon your sins. When you stretch forth your hands, I will turn away my eyes from you: and though you make many supplications, I will not hearken to you; for your hands are full of blood. Wash you, be clean; remove your iniquities from your souls before my eyes; cease from your iniquities; learn to do well; diligently seek judgment, deliver him that is suffering wrong, plead for the orphan, and obtain justice for the widow. And come, let us reason together, saith the Lord: and though your sins be as purple, I will make them white as snow; and though they be as scarlet, I will make them white as wool…” (Is 1: 2-3, 14-18)
This is one of the readings for today, the first day of Lent. And what an unexpected reading it is. God tells us, among other things, “Your fasting…my soul hates.” (That's Orthodox Christianity for you. It's not for sissies.) What kind of fasting does God’s soul “hate”? The kind that is out of touch with Him and His purpose, which is to “remove iniquities” from our souls and “diligently” to “seek judgment” and “deliverance” for those “suffering wrong.”
God seeks to make Himself “known” to us, so that we “come, and reason together” with His justice and mercy. He does this in part through external disciplines like fasts and feasts. Because these disciplines bring us together, out of self-isolation, and also slow us down, in our disparate and distracting pursuits. But they are not ends in themselves, and they lose their meaning outside of God. The “end” that God pursues, in slowing us down through fasting and feasting/resting periods, is our communion with Him, our harmony with His love and mercy.
So let me not lose sight of the forest, which is the “big” picture of God’s all-encompassing justice and mercy, for the trees, which are the fasting-rules. We “ought” to follow the latter, as our Lord tells us, “without neglecting” the former (Mt 23: 23). As I begin the salvific discipline of Lent, let me “come and reason together” with God as He calls me to, in heartfelt prayer, and in humble reliance on His grace, so He can make my sins “white as snow” in and with Him. Happy beginning of Lent!