Friday of Week 27 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Joel 1:13-15; 2:1-2

In today’s First Reading, the prophet calls for repentance for many sins and gives a warning about the Day of Yahweh. The prophet excludes no one from the need to repent and do penance. He begins with the priests and all those who serve in the Temple. He calls on them to do night-long penance for they have failed in their duties of liturgical service:

Grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God.

A fast and a solemn assembly of the people is to be proclaimed by the elders. Everyone in the country is to be called together in the Temple. Similar exhortations to repentance and prayer recur in other parts of the book. The interest that Joel displays in formal observance of the liturgy contrasts markedly with the attitude with other prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Jeremiah, but Joel too insists on the need for inward conversion.

In general, fasting was required on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and also practised in times of calamity as a sign of penitence and humility. The New Testament, both the Gospel and Paul, speaks strongly against outward signs that do not reflect a corresponding inward belief or attitude (see Matt 6:1-8; 23:1-36).

The reason for the fast and the assembly is that:

…the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

The “Day of the Lord” is the dominant theme of the Book of Joel. Other prophets also use it, such as, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, Zephaniah and Malachi. Sometimes abbreviated as “that Day” or the “Day of Yahweh”, the term often refers to the decisive intervention of God in history, such as through the invasion of locusts in Joel. It can also refer to Christ’s coming at the end of time.

Some translations also use the Hebrew word Shaddai in referring to the “Almighty”. This is a play on the words shod (devastation) and Shaddai (a name for God, i.e. “the Almighty”). The plague of locusts at the beginning of the book heralds the “Day of the Lord”, which is a day of terror, even though, in the context of Joel (chaps 3-4), it brings the ultimate triumph of Israel.

The last part of the reading is a sombre warning that the “Day of the Lord” is very near. “Blow the trumpet” is a warning of approaching danger and the punishment of Israel for the coming day of wrath. The alarm is to be raised on God’s holy mountain, that is, Mount Zion where the Temple was situated. The trumpet, made of a ram’s or bull’s horn, was used to signal approaching danger. Its sound could fill people with fear. It was also used to summon Israel to religious gatherings. Hence it is to be the signal for the gathering of all the elect on the last day.

The coming Day is a “day of darkness and gloom”, corresponding to the approach of locusts which darken the sky. The plague of locusts mentioned in chapter 1 is a kind of parable for the coming “Day of the Lord”. Darkness is a common prophetic figure used of the day of the Lord and generally a metaphor for distress and suffering.

As with the locusts, the day will come:

Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes…

In some translations of this verse, the “blackness” spreads ‘like the dawn’. ‘Dawn’ usually suggests relief from gloom and the end of darkness. Here, however, it is used ironically, describing the locust infestation spreading across the land like the light of dawn, which first lights up the eastern horizon and then spreads across the whole countryside.

But an infestation of locusts is as nothing compared to the “Day of the Lord”, whose like has never been seen before, and whose like will never happen again.

Despite the somewhat apocalyptic language, the words of the prophet are still applicable to our own situation. In our Church too, both priests and people have often failed in their Gospel responsibilities.

There is always a time for us to repent and do some purifying penance. We are all, without a single exception, sinners. It is the humble acknowledgment of this that sets us on the way to getting closer to God and Jesus our Lord. It is understandable then, that this passage is also used during the liturgy of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

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