The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > Reflecting El Roi: exquisite delight

Reflecting El Roi: exquisite delight

By: KAYA WEAVER

Glorify Dance Theatre will premiere a new ballet, Reflecting El Roi, in March 2024 during the liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a forty-day period when Christians prepare to experience Holy Week and Easter and to remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Reflecting El Roi uses dance to explore three traditional intentions of Lent: preparation, prayer & fasting, and giving.

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In last week’s post, Lee Giles shared her personal reflection on how fasting is a practice of submitting our whole selves to Jesus as Lord so that we don’t let sinful desires rule our decisions. Lee drew on Scripture from Isaiah 58 to show the connection between the spiritual discipline of fasting and God’s promises for justice and healing. This week, we’ll read Isaiah 58 closely and see how YHWH promises to satisfy those who truly seek God when they fast.

Isaiah 58 is situated among the later chapters of the book of Isaiah (ch. 40-66), which come to the people of Israel through a prophet at the end of their exile under Babylon and Persia. These chapters articulate Israel’s historical experience “as a drama of redemption” and anticipate deliverance for Israel (Heschel, pp. 184-185). Words of hopeful anticipation appear toward the end of Isaiah 58, but the chapter begins by expressing God’s painful awareness of a disjuncture between the people’s religious expression and the true orientation of their hearts.

 

1 Cry out with throat, don’t hold back, 

like a trumpet raise your voice,

and tell to my people their transgression 

and to Jacob’s house their sins.

2 But they seek me every day, 

and they delight to know my ways,

as a nation that has done righteousness 

and has not forsaken its God’s justice,

they ask of me righteous judgments, 

they delight in God’s nearness.

 

In the words that follow, the prophet will “cry out” in order to reveal the people’s sin. The people seem to “seek” God and “delight” in God’s ways, yet they are ironically compared to a nation that is faithful to God’s ways, implying that they are not genuinely acting with righteousness and justice.

 

3 Why have we fasted and you have not seen, 

abased ourselves and you do not know?

Look, on the day of your fast you find delight 

and you oppress all your laborers.

4 Look, you fast for contention and strife, 

and to strike with a wicked fist;

you do not fast as you do today to make your voice heard on high.

 

Since they are seeking God at least nominally, the people wonder why God has not responded to their acts of devotion. The people desire God’s nearness, but their current fasting practices are failing to draw God’s positive regard, and their bond feels insecure.

The command, “Look,” points out what is sinful in the people’s actions. It may be the case that the people fast out of some sense of devotion to YHWH, but what God notices about their fast days is that they seek their own delight and “oppress” those who work under their authority. There is disharmony and violence on these so-called fast days, and this does not draw YHWH’s positive regard. Although the people engage in a practice with a stated religious intent, their motives and other behaviors do not reflect hearts attuned to God’s character and will. The fraught state of the people’s relationship with God is not due to any capriciousness on God’s part but to the people’s misalignment of their actions with God’s heart, which they know from God’s commandments.

 

5 Do I choose a fast such as this, a day for a person’s self-abasement?

Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush and spread sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call this a fast and a day for YHWH’s will?

 

YHWH uses rhetorical questions to differentiate the kind of fast the people currently perform and the kind of fast God really desires. The first possibility emphasizes “a person’s self-abasement” and describes the outward signals of humility, grief, and repentance. These actions are centered on the individual performing them.

 

6 Isn’t this a fast I choose, 

to open bonds of wickedness,

to untie the bands of a yoke,

and to send out the oppressed free, 

so they will tear off every yoke?

7 Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, 

and to bring home the poor homeless,

when you see a naked person, to cover him, 

and to not turn away your own flesh?

 

The second possibility describes interpersonal activity. Specifically, it describes setting free the heavily burdened laborers and sharing possessions with those in need of food, clothing, or shelter. The last phrase of verse 7 turns these actions back onto the individual, identifying “the hungry,” “the poor homeless,” and “a naked person” as “your own flesh.” The person in need is kin to the person with material goods to spare, as near as their own body. 

Focusing the activity of a fast day on one’s self in isolation disregards the aspects of “self” that are tied to community. The prophet’s words illustrate this through the contrast between pious signals like the clothing and posture of fasting (v. 5) and unrighteous actions like oppressing workers (v. 4). The person fasting is trying to change their standing before God directly by attending to their individual appearance, yet they neglect the ethical aspects of their behavior. As God explains through the prophet, this neglect of justice for their neighbors is the very thing distancing these people from YHWH, who cares for the oppressed. In order to move closer to God, the people must reflect God’s character in their own actions toward others.

 

8 Then your light will break through like the dawn, 

and your restoration will spring up quickly, 

and your righteousness will go before you, 

YHWH’s glory will gather you.

9 Then you will cry out and YHWH will answer, 

you will cry for help and he will say, here I am,

if you turn aside the yoke from your midst, 

the finger-pointing and wicked talk,

10 and furnish yourself for the hungry, 

and satisfy the afflicted soul,

then your light will rise in the darkness, 

and your gloom like the noonday.

 

The second possibility is the one that comes with promised results, reflecting that “this is the fast I [YHWH] choose” (see v. 6). In contrast to the problem expressed in verses 3 and 4, where YHWH does not notice the people’s fast, verse 9 describes YHWH responding. Therefore, this is the answer to the people’s wondering: if they desire God’s nearness, they must change the way they act to embody the same kind of justice that God works in the world. This promise is phrased as a conditional, “if…then…” statement. If the people change their actions from oppressing their workers under a yoke to setting the oppressed free, and if they stop ignoring the needy among them and start sharing what they have, then restoration and transformation will ensue as YHWH’s answer to their desire for God’s nearness.

A “light” breaking “through like the dawn” points to the creative power of God who formed the first light and set it to brighten each morning (Genesis 1:3-5). The people’s actions of righteousness and justice cannot fully restore life to a world dying from sin, but they are a step of joining in God’s purpose to do that through God’s power. It’s God’s gracious gift to remind a wayward people what God truly desires and empower us to seek it, and it’s God’s overwhelming response that renews life. 

God cares about how people fast, responds to one fast but not another, because God wants us to actively, willingly participate in the justice God is working out in the world. The people fast because they want a relationship with God; God requires a certain kind of fasting because God wants a mutually responsive relationship with us.

 

11 And YHWH will guide you always,

 and he will satisfy you in scorched lands,

and he will invigorate your bones,

and you will be like a watered garden, 

and like a spring of water whose waters will not disappoint.

 

The promises continue, and the imagery of water and thirst is prominent. “In scorched lands,” God’s people long desperately for water, and YHWH provides for that desperate need. Furthermore, “scorched lands” give way to “a watered garden,” a fertile place with plenty of water to grow beautiful, nourishing plants. When we seek God by seeking justice and fulfilling others’ needs, we find that God provides abundantly for our needs, fulfilling our desire for God and the life that God gives.

 

12 And they will build from you the ancient ruins; 

the foundations of generation after generation – you will establish them,

and you will be called ‘waller of the breach,’ ‘restorer of pathways to dwell.”

 

Not only will we ourselves be restored to life, but we will become part of the restoration of life to those who come after us.

 

13 If you return your feet from Shabbat, doing your delight on my holy day,

and you call Shabbat an exquisite delight, and YHWH’s holy [day] honorable, 

and you honor it,

[away] from doing your way, from finding your delight and speaking words,

14 then you will take exquisite delight in YHWH, 

and I will make you ride on the heights of the land,

and I will feed you the inheritance of your father Jacob, 

for YHWH’s mouth has spoken.

 

The final few verses of the chapter use two words for “delight” which differ in degree. One refers to people’s delights that aren’t necessarily grounded in an understanding of God’s justice. The other is translated “exquisite delight,” expressing how God’s own self, experienced by joining with God in acts of righteousness and justice, brings unparalleled satisfaction and joy, filling an emptiness that nothing else can fill.

The people’s deep desire for God’s nearness finds its parallel in the physical hunger that comes with fasting from food, or another desire that comes with giving up some other source of delight or distraction. The discipline of fasting, with this acute feeling of emptiness, allows us to embody the truth that these things do not satisfy our longing for God. When God describes the fast that YHWH chooses, it gives us a picture of what will satisfy that longing for God. To seek justice as God does for the oppressed and the impoverished is to seek and find God’s presence.

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When you watch Reflecting El Roi, you’ll see fasting embodied as stillness in the midst of movement. Movement and action may accomplish much, but the action of stillness acknowledges the need for God to move to transform a person and renew creation. The dancer in stillness, like a person fasting, waits to be filled by God and moved by God’s desires instead of their own.

Why do we long for God? We don’t yearn merely for some vague feeling of comfort to assuage our pain at experiencing the world’s brokenness. A heart that longs for God yearns for everything to be set right in a way that only the God who has overcome death can do. That is why Isaiah 58 says that true fasting is not just a ritual tacked onto life as it is, stained by sin, injustice, and violence. True fasting is a transformation of our actions and our relationships toward the life-giving ways of God’s own self-giving love for creation.

During Lent, Christians are invited to imitate Christ by fasting. Often this means giving something up; it might be chocolate, meat on Fridays, or scrolling through social media. What might you fast from this Lent to let Jesus rule in place of your desires? What kind of fast will open you to transformation toward justice so you may exquisitely delight in the God of life?

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Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation.


Secondary reference: “Second Isaiah,” in The Prophets (pp. 184-201) by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harper Perennial 2001.

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