Ash Wednesday

Joel is a particularly timeless text.

Thick darkness
A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! - Joel 2:2 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

February 14, 2018

First Reading
View Bible Text

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

Joel is a particularly timeless text.

There are insufficient contextual cues to identify its timeframe. There is no mention of a monarch in the opening verse by which to date it as is common in the prophetic canon. (Only Joel, Obadiah, and Malachi do not provide such information initially; however, Obadiah clearly dates itself with its content, the fall of Jerusalem.)

The precipitating event for Joel is slightly clearer, an ecological — and therefore economic — catastrophe in the form of an unparalleled locust plague and the devastation of crops leading to the decimation of livestock (Joel 1:4-7, 11-12, 17-18). The devastation is interpreted as “the day of the Lord” in Joel 1:15, a day of ultimate judgment many associate with the end of the world. In response to this cataclysm the prophet calls for fasting and lamentation, (1:13-14).

The verses assigned for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, anticipate successive waves of calamity. In Joel as in some other prophets there is the sense that the day might just not be the end of the world, that there is a possibility that some might survive the coming apocalypse through God’s mercy (Joel 2:13-14). God bids the people “return to [God]” in 2:12 with fasting, weeping, and mourning, and in verse 13, rending their hearts rather than their garments.

It is important to note that no specific charge is laid against the people for which they need to repent. More importantly, they are not blamed for the catastrophe they have just experienced. (I am writing in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria, and the earthquake in Mexico City). Unlike some contemporary television evangelists, the prophet does not blame the people for their own suffering, and does not claim that natural catastrophes are divine punishment. While turning to God, particularly turning back to God often signals repentance which is the primary meaning of the verb shuv, here I suggest it be read as rededication.

I read the call in Joel 2 as a call to draw closer to God. That is undoubtedly why the lectionary framers chose this text for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the season in which we as the Church are bid to draw closer to God using the very same spiritual disciplines disclosed in Joel: prayer and fasting. Joel 2:16 calls for the entire community to respond to the call for rededication — infants, children, and elders (making it even less likely they are charged with “sinning”) and wedding parties enjoined to suspend festivities.

Joel 2:14 bids the community to turn to God in the hopes that God will intervene in the ecological catastrophe. The prophet is clear that there is no guarantee. God cannot be bought off. This is not a prosperity gospel or incantational theology in which you can get what you want out of God as long as you follow the rules exactly.

Joel has a special word for priests and “ministers,” those who assist in the service of temple in verse 17. (The Episcopalian in me wants to read them as deacons.) While neither priests nor their assistants are the same as contemporary clergy, the two groups can serve an analog for clergy. The text charges those who oversee the liturgical work of the community with interceding for the community.

They are not charged with pointing out sin in the community, but praying for them, to the point of tears. The prophet even gives them a script, “Spare your people, Holy One, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Reminiscent of Moses, Joel invokes shame as a motivation to move God to act on behalf of her people. (See Exodus 32:12 and Numbers 14:13-16 where Moses tells God what the Egyptians will say if God kills the Israelites or allows them die.)

Joel offers a familiar tender portrait of the God who draws us in, towards her: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). This core description of God is foundational in Judaism and is repeated throughout the scriptures: see also Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; Jonah 4:2. All of these use forms of the root rhm, meaning womb to expresses God’s tender love, often translated as “merciful.” Rahum is the deep love that springs from the womb, no more separable than the heart is from heartache.

It is to that God that the Church turns during Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday. The opening prayer of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book of the Episcopal Church, translates Joel’s understanding of God into the liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.