Ash Wednesday

While gallons of interpretive ink have been spilt over the historical locus of the Prophet Joel, little can be said with certainty save that the book appears to be a post-exilic work and that it may have composed at the dawn of the 4th century BCE.

Ash to Ash
"Ash to Ash" by Gerg1967 licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

March 1, 2017

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

While gallons of interpretive ink have been spilt over the historical locus of the Prophet Joel, little can be said with certainty save that the book appears to be a post-exilic work and that it may have composed at the dawn of the 4th century BCE.

Even if we could be certain about the books historical provenance, such background matters inspire few preachers and far fewer parishioners. That is a good thing! On the other hand, Joel’s urgent summons to repentance, sounded anew on Ash Wednesday, holds homiletical promise.

As often happens in the lectionary, the reading is awkwardly divided. Joel 2:1 initiates an inclusio that concludes with verse 11. The prophet calls for the trumpet of alarm to be sounded on Zion because of the impending day of the LORD (verse 1), a day that is terrible and unendurable (verse 11). In between, Joel describes the army of the LORD and the devastating consequence of its arrival.

With verses 12 to 17, however, the threat is replaced by the LORD’s plea that the people might avoid catastrophe and “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and with mourning” (verse 12), and that the people might “rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

This appeal is remarkable in several ways.

First, the address is aimed to the people as a whole and not to individuals. The imperatives “return” (verse 12) and “rend” (verse 13) are given as a second person plurals as are the suffixes for “heart” (“y’all’s heart”, verses 12, 13) and clothing (verse 13, “y’all’s garments). Indeed, the collective character of this call to repentance is sustained in the remaining verses of the pericope: the “people” are summoned and the “congregation” will be sanctified. Moreover, and lest we be confused, the prophet specifies that the ritual gathering involves gathering the aged, children, suckling infants, and even the newly wed who are summoned from their bridal bed (verse 16). In short, none are omitted or excused from public repentance.

Such a public lamentation and display of contrition is a far cry from the individualism that characterizes overly much of our ritual repentance. True, our liturgies for such occasions are punctuated with first person language (“we have sinned against you”), but unless I am very mistaken the “thoughts, words, and deeds” that we rue are private misdeeds, not public ones. It is a rare congregation that would confess that its “thoughts, words, and deeds” had been contrary to the will and intention of God. And yet it was precisely to such a communal return that Joel summoned his auditors.

A second remarkable aspect of the summons of this passage is Joel’s calling to mind just who was this LORD with whom the people had to do. Verse 13 recalls the LORD’s self-disclosing revelation of Exodus 34:6-7. By reminding his hearers that this God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (verse 13), the prophet evokes what Walter Brueggemann has described as a well-known “credo of adjectives”1 that intends to evoke hope in the God of fidelity and grace.

That this God whose nature and character it is to “relent from punishing” will do so, however, remains a matter of hope, both then and ever. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him?” We dare not presume the grace of God. We may, however, expectantly hope for such grace. And we may and ought to trust that the God who has revealed God’s own divine intentions in the person of Jesus Christ will hear and leave us with a blessing.

How, then, might a preacher bring this text before her congregation?

Strangely — and in my mind, wonderfully — the specific sins of Joel’s people are never articulated. We can only surmise that they collectively wandered or abandoned something fundamental in their relationship with the LORD. The result of their infidelity already had national effects (described in Joel 1). Joel assured his audience that those events would pale in comparison to the culminating cosmic devastation coming with God’s army (Joel 2:10) on the impending great and terrible day of the LORD.

If the corporate sins of Joel’s nation are not clear, events in North America and elsewhere in the world have newly brought to public awareness the fact that there is much for which communities of faith need to repent. Not just in the United States — but plainly in the United States — we have witnessed repeatedly the public face of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hate, and systemic violence. One need not look far to find examples of unbridled greed — corporate or individual — that have wreaked injustice and pain on communities of people and on creation itself.

By in large, communities of faith have been far too quiet, far too accommodating, and far too quiescent in our response.

Perhaps it is time we also repent.

In her book, The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness,2 Jennifer McBride proposes a way forward. Building upon the word of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, McBride urges communities of faith to adopt an ethic of repentance. Such an ethic emphatically does not mean adopting a posture of moral righteousness; instead, communities of faith are summoned to imitate Christ in as much as we take responsibility for the sin from which we cannot extricate ourselves and for which we are therefore guilty. In a typically intricate sentence, McBride writes:

“The responsible church-community obeys the command of God as expressed through the form of Christ, but within a creative process it freely discerns, first, the content of its confession (the particular sin/s it is convicted of) and, then, its ensuing repentant activity, which together become the church-community’s specific vocation of redemptive public engagement.”3

It seems unlikely that all of that will happen on Ash Wednesday! On the other hand, if the preacher can but follow the lead of Joel and help his or her church-community to hear the call to stand not over but beside the sinner — the racist, the misogynist, the xenophobe — the Lenten way of the cross will have surely and well begun.


1 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 213-28.

2 Jennifer McBride, The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

3 Ibid., 143.