Lent is a time that calls all of us to take on the virtue of humility. Not the kind of humility that says “I’m good for nothing,” because God never made anything that was good for nothing. That isn’t humility at all, really, it’s just self-loathing, and there’s nothing virtuous about that. The kind of humility that Lent calls us to follow is a humility that recognizes that God is God and we are not. This kind of humility says that even our best efforts are only possible because God has chosen to give us grace and to work through us and in us. Humility says we are good people, thanks be to God.
So when we fast, the Gospel tells us, we must fast in humility. We can’t be like John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees who are fasting and looking to make sure every else knows that we are fasting, and look askance at anyone who is not doing so. Our fasting is always between us and God, and no one need know about it. More than that, we don’t need to know if anyone else is fasting or not. Humility starts with minding our own spiritual business.
Humility while fasting does actually direct our thoughts and affections to others, but not to see if they are fasting. Rather, as the first reading tells us, fasting helps us to be aware of the needs of others. Fasting reminds us that other people hunger to be fed, given proper housing, released from captivity, educated, meaningfully employed, and so much more. The hunger we experience from fasting ought to move us to hunger and thirst for righteousness, for a right relationship with others and with God.
It’s easy for us to give up something for Lent and think we’re on track. But today’s Scriptures call us to embrace Lent with humility, remembering that God’s grace is what brings us to salvation. Those holy thoughts should move us to compassion for those in need and to offer our fasting for the greater honor and glory of God. “My sacrifice, O God,” the Psalmist prays, “is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”