Ash Wednesday – Readings

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

On Ash Wednesday, we reflect that the readings for 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 on each day of Lent for prayerful reflection in order to make a personal preparation for the observation of Holy Week and Easter.

Today, 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. 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 The majority of historical references in his book, in which there is no mention of Assyria or Babylonia, would point to a period between 400 and 350 BC.

Joel 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 that ravaged the country as a sign of God’s judgement on his people.

“Fasting, weeping, mourning…”
The passage today is an eloquent and beautiful call to repentance. Fasting was required once a year on the Day of Atonement, but also in times of calamity (as with the plague of locusts already mentioned). It was a sign of penitence and submission to God by a sinful people.

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 contrasts with 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 (in Greek, metanoia). 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, rather 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 a chorus that echoes throughout the Old Testament, telling us that we can approach God with the greatest of confidence.

But repentance in the scriptures is not just feeling bad about the past and looking for forgiveness. It is about choosing to adopt a complete change of thinking, a new way of seeing our lives, moving forward on a different track. As mentioned, this metanoia involves a radical change in the way we 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…summon the community…assemble the elders…gather 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, people 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. Through this repentance, God is reminded that they are his people.

“Why should it be said among the nations…”
In difficult times, those on the outside are driven to ask: “Where was their God?” This is the question that people often ask when disasters strike – Where was God when his people died by the millions in the Nazi concentration camps? Where was God when man-made evil struck and killed so many, or when natural disasters occurred, or when a close relative or the innocent victim of a driving accident died? Where was God when a young person, full of life, unexpectedly died?

Then the lord, jealous on behalf of his land, took pity on his people.

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 to do this.

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 seriously reflect 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”. What Paul means is 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 so 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, not be 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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