We associate the prophet Isaiah with Advent, and with just cause. The fifty-eighth chapter of the book is rather a blast of reality-check in the middle of an otherwise-comforting section (chapters 40 through 66).
The prophet begins not with a confession, but with an accusation:
Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,
lift up your voice like a trumpet blast;
Proclaim to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
And the prophet is aware that people indeed want to be with God, to do right, to be very near to him. But it doesn’t happen. Our fault? God to blame? God knows people are looking for him, and are even persistent in their search. God even quotes us:
They seek me day after day,
and desire to know my ways,
Like a nation that has done what is just
and not abandoned the judgment of their God;
They ask of me just judgments,
they desire to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see it?
afflict ourselves, but you take no note?”
God sees rather deeply:
See, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
See, you fast only to quarrel and fight
and to strike with a wicked fist!
Do not fast as you do today
to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I would choose,
a day to afflict oneself?
To bow one’s head like a reed,
and lie upon sackcloth and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast?
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Are believers just putting on a show for God? Making some small offerings, but leaving much room for our personal pursuits, even if they brush aside others and keep them downtrodden? Is this a mirror God is holding up to me? To you? This is a serious examination of conscience for those who consider themselves religious and godly.
Many of you are familiar with the core of the chapter, often cited as God’s urging to deepen our experience and make the fasting and prayer connected to real life, to real charity, to real justice:
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh?
What then, is the result of what we Catholics would call “apostolic action”? Here is the message of comfort and hope:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and 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 he will say: “Here I am!”
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the accusing finger, and malicious speech;
If you lavish your food on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
Then your light shall rise in the darkness,
and your gloom shall become like midday;
Then the LORD will guide you always
and satisfy your thirst in parched places,
will give strength to your bones
And you shall be like a watered garden,
like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.
This passage would be appropriate for a communal penance service anytime, including Lent. But if I were using it, I might be inclined to offer a brief Gospel passage with a general theme of penitence. Isaiah 58:1-11 is a long, complex, and thought-provoking piece.