Ash Wednesday – Readings


Commentary on Joel 2:12-18; Corinthian 5:20-6:2

The readings of Lent are taken from a wide variety of texts in both the Old and New Testaments. They can be seen as a preparation for the honouring of the Lord's Passion and the celebration of his Resurrection.  One can profitably take one or both readings each day for prayerful reflection in order to make a personal preparation for the observation of Holy Week and Easter. 

The first reading is from the prophet Joel of whom very little is known. His name is shared with about a dozen other Old Testament figures. Internal evidence would seem to indicate that he lived in Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 BC). The majority of historical references in his book, in which there is no mention of Assyria or Babylonia, would point to a period between 400 and 350 BC. He is regarded as a ‘cultic' prophet, that is, he exercised his ministry within the life of the Temple. Today's reading comes from the earlier part of the book in which Joel sees a plague of locusts which ravaged the country as a sign of God's judgement on his people and hence a time for repentance. "Fasting, weeping, mourning…" Fasting was required once a year on the Day of Atonement but also in times of calamity (as with a plague of locusts). It was a sign of penitence and submission to God by a sinful people. Today's passage is an eloquent and beautiful call to repentance. "It is Yahweh who speaks – Come back to me with your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning… Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn.." Why? Because Yahweh "is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent". (This is in contrast to the prophet Jonah who early on in his mission complained that God was too easy on sinners, especially Gentile sinners.)The passage is a solemn call to repentance. Repentance here is not just sorrow for the past but a call to a complete change of life. The emphasis is on inner change, not outward observance – "Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn". For us, too, Lent is better observed by an inner change in our way of life than merely the external ‘giving up' of minor pleasures. A change that will continue well beyond Lent and become a consistent pattern of our living.It is certainly not a time for fear. Our God is a loving God. "He is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent." This is almost a chorus line that echoes through the Old Testament. So we can approach God in the greatest of confidence. But repentance in the Scripture is not just feeling bad about the past and looking for forgiveness.It is about bringing about a complete change of thinking, a new way of seeing our lives, moving forward on a different track. What the Gospel calls a metanoia, involving a radical change in the way see our life and the direction in which it ought to go. How to benefit from the goodness of the Lord? "Sound the trumpets in Zion! Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together…the community…the elders…the children…even infants at the breast… Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom and the bride her alcove…let the priest, the ministers of Yahweh, lament. Let them all cry out for pardon and forgiveness." All are called together for a common show of repentance, peoples from their homes, newlyweds from their bedchambers, even the priests making sacrifice in the Temple. It is a time for everyone to leave their sinful ways – from priests to children – and to repent with deepest sorrow. God is reminded that they are his people. If they are reduced to shame, outsiders will be driven to ask: "Where is their God?" Just the question that people often ask when disasters strike – Where was God when his people died by the million in the Nazi concentration camps? Where was God when the Twin Towers were struck? When thousands died in the tsunami of Southeast Asia? When a close relative died, the innocent victim of a driving disaster…? The question to ask most of the time is not: Where was God? but Where were we? In Joel's case, the Lord did reply. The prayer is answered; the plague ceases. Yahweh, jealous of his own people, takes pity on them. Let us pray that this Lenten season will help us to see the world and to see life as God sees it. The wonderful Scripture readings of Lent will help us.  

The second reading is a powerful appeal from Paul to the Christians of Corinth which fits in perfectly with the beginning of the Lenten season. First, he reminds us that we are "ambassadors for Christ". It is through us, through our words and actions, that God is seen by the rest of the world. That is a tremendous responsibility and something to be seriously reflected on especially during this Lenten season. Secondly, Paul points out that, for our sakes, God made Jesus, who was altogether without sin, "to be sin". In this sense, that Jesus, the altogether sinless One, willingly endured the effects of sin and evil, especially through his suffering and death on the Cross. His purpose in doing that was that "we might become the very holiness of God". In other words, we too are called to walk the same Way that Jesus did, to be ready to suffer and die as he did. In this more than by any other thing we might say or do, we truly become ambassadors for Jesus Christ. So Paul begs the Corinthians (and us) that this tremendous act of God's love enacted through his Son, Jesus, be not in vain. Lent is a time for us to contemplate deeply the meaning of Jesus' life, suffering and death for each one of us and to reflect what changes it calls for in the way we live our lives of discipleship now. "Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!" For the Christian the time of conversion and change is always NOW and never more so than during the great season of Lent.

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