Ash Wednesday – Readings

Commentary on Joel 2:12-18; 2 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 The majority of historical references in his book, in which there is no mention of Assyria or Babylonia, would point to a period between 400 and 350 BC.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.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Why? Because Yahweh:

…is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,
and relenting from punishment.

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. Says the prophet:

…rend your hearts and not your clothing.

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 gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,
and relenting from punishment.

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?

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room
and the bride her canopy…

Let the priests,
the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations”.

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 is 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 became jealous for his land
and had 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.

Now is an acceptable time…
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.

Second, 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:

…so that in him we might become the righteousness 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; look, 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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