Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday  begins the 40-day journey of Lent with a gathering of the community to confess our sins, to remind ourselves of our mortality and frailty, and to hear the call to repentance or turning around from our sinful ways.

March 9, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Ash Wednesday  begins the 40-day journey of Lent with a gathering of the community to confess our sins, to remind ourselves of our mortality and frailty, and to hear the call to repentance or turning around from our sinful ways.

It is a day for telling the hard truth about who we deep down really are. The themes of confession of sin and seeking repentance are often understood by our congregants as quite personal and individual. Certainly that is one dimension of Ash Wednesday. However, the reading from Joel 2 lifts our eyes as well to the broader communal, national, and even global dimensions of our collective sin as congregations, communities, nations, and the world.   

The Movement of the Book of Joel as a Whole
In preparation for preaching from Joel, chapter 2, it may be helpful to do a quick read through the whole book (only three chapters!).  The reader will get a sense of the dramatic imagery, the striking shifts in tone and mood, and the role of Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 in light of the movement of the whole book.   The book does not contain a characteristic dating formula, but most scholars would place it in the late post-exilic period after the re-building of the temple (around 400 BCE).

1:1-4 The book begins with an urgent call to pass on the story of the unprecedented disaster that has come upon the land so that the story and its lessons can be remembered from generation to generation (1:2-3). The disaster is named in 1:4:  an incredible swarm of locusts or grasshoppers have invaded the land and stripped it bare of all vegetation (vineyards, orchards, pasture lands — 1:7, 12, 19-20) so that food is scarce, animals are suffering, and no grain is available to even make offerings to God at the temple (1:5, 10, 11, 17, 18, 20). 

1:5-2-17  This is the section that contains the Ash Wednesday reading.  Here the focus is on the locust plague and the community’s interpretation and response to it.  The section begins with a call to “gather the people for fasting and prayer” (1:5-14) because “the day of the LORD is near” (1:15-20).  As a concluding refrain, the section ends with a description of the coming day of the LORD (2:1-11) and another call to gather the people for fasting and prayer (2:12-17). 

The community discerns that the disaster is of such severity that it is a sign that the judgment of the day of the LORD is coming soon, and it will bring even greater destruction than what they have endured thus far.  As a result, the community gathers for fasting and prayer.  Who knows (2:14)?  Perhaps the LORD will be merciful and spare us!  That is the hope but there is no presumptive guarantee. 

2:18-32  The mood changes as God has apparently heard the prayers and accepted the people’s repentance. The locust plague has ended, and God promises a bountiful harvest (2:18-27).  

Then the time horizon seems to lengthen to a more distant future and God promises to pour out God’s spirit “on all flesh” — men and women, young and old, slave and free — at a time when “the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (2:28-32). What has happened recently becomes a paradigm for a future time.

3:1-21  The final chapter continues to look toward a far distant future when all the nations will be judged (3:1-12), but God’s faithful people will be rescued on the day of the LORD (3:13-17).  The nations will be judged for their violence, but Judah and Jerusalem will live in peace (3:18-21).

The whole book of Joel thus holds together both an intense acknowledgement of the sin of God’s own people for which they must repent and the sin of the other nations and powers that threaten the wellbeing and peace of God’s people.  Natural disasters and the violence of war among the nations interact with one another throughout the book of Joel.

Reflections on Joel 2:1-2, 17-21
1) The day of the LORD is coming, and that may not necessarily be good news, at least initially.  There will be a reckoning, a judgment, and consequences of our communal sin (2:1-2).

2) God calls God’s people to return to God.  The assumption is that God’s own people have turned elsewhere to follow other gods or powers which is what has brought on the current devastations.  But this return to God must be “with all your heart” and marked by “fasting,…weeping…and mourning.”  This is no surface repentance but one that cuts to the core of our bodies, our emotions, and our spirit (2:12).

3) The call to return to the LORD is grounded first of all in the character of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” and who “relents from punishing.”  These words represent an ancient and much used core confession of the character of God that one finds at many points in the OT (for example, Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15).  God has revealed this consistent character repeatedly throughout Israel’s history.

4) Although God is gracious and merciful, the community of God’s people cannot presume that God will automatically forgive or save.  How God responds remains God’s prerogative.  “Who knows” whether God will relent and leave a blessing (2:14)?

5) The matter is urgent.  The community is called to gather by the blast of the trumpet that interrupts their routines and demands that they come together to fast and repent.  The call to gather is so urgent that even the bride and the groom should interrupt their wedding night to join the assembly.  Now that is urgent!

6) The text concludes with the ministerial prayer of intercession, asking God to “spare your people” from pain and persecution in the face of those who mock them and ask, “Where is their God?”  In short, the text of Joel provides the blueprint for an Ash Wednesday service — a liturgy of fasting and a broken spirit, a confession of sin, a seeking of God’s forgiveness, urgent prayers of intercession, and a return to the long line of God’s people who have read and enacted the liturgical movement embedded within the present book of Joel.  Tracing its steps is like walking a Lenten labyrinth, cleansing the soul and returning us to remember who we really are and who our God truly is.  Let the journey begin!