INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Ash Wednesday
JOEL 2:1-2, 12-17.† With the warning sound of trumpets, the prophet sounds the alarm† that the fearsome Day of the Lord is at hand. There is still time to repent, though there may still be uncertainty that all the fasting a sacrifices will be sufficient to dissuade Yahweh from punishing wayward Israel.
ISAIAH 58:1-12 .† (Alternate)† Countering the popular displays of repentance by fasting, the prophet pleads that Israelís returned exiles make justice their true form of repentance. Only then will the Lord restore their prosperity and rebuild their ruined cities.
PSALM 51:1-17. As the sub-title indicates, this classic psalm of repentance has traditionally been connected with Davidís adultery with Bathsheba. Many scholars doubt this reference. It could just as well be read as the sincere expression of penitence by any sinner at any time.
2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b - 6:10.†† Paul quite rightly linked the Christian message of reconciliation with God to the ministry of every Christian. He cited plainly the many difficulties he had experienced in carrying out this ministry and the plethora of spiritual gifts he had been given to do it.
MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-21. From the collection of sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount comes this insightful observation: The essence of true penitential prayer is to be found in its secretive quality. On the other hand, making a public display for self-centred reasons is the essence of hypocrisy.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
Liturgical and popular practices related to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday
and Lent developed relatively late in the history of the Christian Church. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition, these special days of penitence and spiritual renewal have been widely celebrated only since the year 1000. In recent years, many churches of the Protestant tradition, which rejected them almost totally at the time of the Reformation, have taken them up again. Liturgical practices of penitence, however, have a sound biblical background as the lessons assigned for Ash Wednesday clearly reveal.
JOEL 2:1-2, 12-17.† Joel is one of the unknown prophets of the OT. Scholars have noted a close resemblance of his writings with those of the better known 8th century BCE prophet, Amos. Unlike Amos, he was concerned with worship
of the temple, most likely the Second Temple of the post-exilic period. Many scholars believe that his work dates from a relatively peaceful time during the late Persian period, ca. 400 BCE, when the leadership of Israel had, to a considerable extent, fallen to the high priesthood. Joelís great hope lay in the restoration of the nation to its previously privileged role as the divinely chosen people. He couched this hope in strong apocalyptic terms recalling the declarations of earlier prophets.
With the warning sound of trumpets, the prophet sounds the alarm that the fearsome Day of the Lord is at hand. There is still time to repent, though there may still be uncertainty that all the fasting a sacrifices will be sufficient to dissuade Yahweh from punishing wayward Israel.
The emphasis on liturgical practices in vss. 12, 14 and 15-17 shows how deeply committed Joel was to the traditional ways of showing that penitence was real. On the other hand, vs. 13 contains the classic expression of the Israelís faith in the divine qualities of grace, mercy, slowness to anger and abounding steadfast love.
ISAIAH 58:1-12 .† (Alternate) Countering the popular displays of repentance by fasting, the prophet pleads that Israelís returned exiles make justice for the oppressed their true form of repentance. Only then will the Lord restore their prosperity and rebuild their ruined cities.
In vss. 1-5, after sounding a trumpet (shofar - a ramís horn) to get the people's attention, the prophet condemns in the most adamant terms the proffered symbols of repentance. Fasting in particular receives his vituperative censure. Coupled with this, he warns the people that this will not get Yahweh's attention.
Beginning with vs. 6, he then goes on to delineate the kind of repentance Yahweh seeks: social justice for the oppressed, the homeless and the poor. Only this will receive Yahweh's blessing and result in Yahweh's gifts of prosperity thus enabling them to rebuild their ruined cities.
The historical allusions in this passage point to the decades immediately following the return of the exiles from Babylon. Impoverished and dispirited, they failed to recognize that true repentance had to be implemented by a sharing of limited resources. This could be read as a powerful message for our own time when globalization has created a still wider gap between rich and poor. Times like these call for an even greater commitment to social justice, not only within one nation but throughout the global village. Would it not be an appropriate measure of our repentance to increase our gifts to those less fortunate than ourselves - the Haitian disaster relief, for instance - than to ďgive upĒ anything else for Lent.
PSALM 51:1-17.†† As the sub-title indicates, this classic psalm of repentance has traditionally been connected with Davidís adultery with Bathsheba. Many scholars doubt this reference, yet it finds persistent expression in many pulpits. The actual historical incident behind the psalm, if any, remains unknown.† The final two verses omitted from this reading suggest a post-exilic date when ritual sacrifices would have been offered in the restored temple in Jerusalem. The earlier verses could just as well be read as the sincere expression of penitence by any sinner at any time. Indeed, many a despondent soul has found them helpful in saying what one's own words cannot say. They open the penitent heart to God.
Many have found the words of vs. 5 very troublesome. The KJV appear to shift blame for one's evil behaviour on to one's parents, grandparents and beyond. This may be in keeping with the OT tradition voiced in Exodus 20:5 where "the iniquity of the fathers (is visited) upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate (Yahweh)."† (See also Exodus 34:6-8; Number 14:17-19; Deuteronomy 5:8-10) While modern psychology may recognize that behaviour often has roots in family systems of long standing, that is not the import of more recent translations of the text. The NRSV wording, "I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me," presents a paraphrase of the Hebrew, which definitely implies parental iniquity. Another view holds that the literal translation anticipates a later Jewish concept of evil inclination. We are all sinners alienated from God and never were anything else.
Many sins remain quite unknown to the sinner. It takes a deep examination of the soul to recognize that some things we do can never be sanctioned by God, although sinners are never beyond sanctification. ďA clean heart and a right spiritĒ do come from an examination of one's actual relationship with God and the acceptance of divine forgiveness. It results from the work of the Holy Spirit within us (vss. 10-11) and brings more than joy to the forgiven sinner. One remains a sinner, but now as a forgiven sinner one gains a mission. Not only do the sinner's ways change, but one becomes a messenger of God's grace for others.
Perhaps more than any other institution in the past century, Alcoholics Anonymous has fulfilled this mission in North American society through its twelve step program. Anyone who has shared in this mission even to a minor extent knows how sacrificial it can be. Vs.17 truly expresses the reward of the acceptable sacrifice. Was this not also what voiced in Romans 12:1-2 and again in the next passage assigned for Ash Wednesday?
2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b - 6:10.†† Paul quite rightly linked the Christian message of reconciliation with God to the ministry of every Christian. He cited plainly the many difficulties he had experienced in carrying out this ministry and the plethora of spiritual gifts he had been given to do it. Paul's ministry began when he met the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. We do not know the exact nature of the psychic experience of the encounter, but we do know what followed: a life totally dedicated to bringing the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. Wherever he went, he became the perfect example of an ambassador for Christ.
This passage deals with the challenges of such a positive ministry in direct contrast to the negative aspects of Lent that we so often emphasize.† The first step is to be reconciled to God oneself. That took a considerable length of time for Paul. It is not possible to discover his exact movements in those early years because the narrative of Acts 9:26-30 do not completely correspond to his own account in Galatians 1:17. In his Corinthians letters, Paul did make a strong case for the severity of his trials as an apostle. In 2 Cor. 6:4-5 he quickly summarizes some of these, but vss. 6-10 balances them with an even longer list of the gifts he had been given to overcome them.
One thinks immediately of 20th century heroes of faith such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela whose lives similarly exemplified what Paul saw as being an ambassador for Christ. It is not the worthiness of character or the depths of one's penitence, but the spiritual gifts provided by the Holy Spirit that gives such men and women the power to be who they are. Moral authority springs from encountering Christ in what was for Paul and countless others since a life-changing experience that enabled them to change the history of the their own and subsequent times.
MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-21.†††† From the collection of sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount comes this insightful observation: The essence of true penitential prayer is to be found in its secretive quality. On the other hand, making a public display for self-centred reasons is the essence of hypocrisy.
Few of us have a memorable skill in prayer. Even those who practice silent, contemplative prayer often have difficulty concentrating for any length of time. The human mind is so easily distracted by what is happening around us. For this reason, the counsel Jesus gave in this excerpt could be useful to everyone who sincerely desires to experience the presence of God in prayer. He himself
took time apart for personal spiritual renewal in prayer in quiet places apart from the crowds that constantly pressed around him.
Jesus was also saying that ostentatious piety, expressed either in the mellifluous words of prayer or the giving of substantial gifts to the poor, only affect one's spiritual health in negative ways. Those who seek to do this for personal aggrandizement receive just that kind of reward. In the Hebrew language there was no word for what we call "alms." In that tradition, however, generosity to the poor was both required and praised (e.g. Deut. 15:11; Job 29:11-16). In the Sermon on the Mount, piety and almsgiving are synonymous. Paul urged his communities to make special efforts to remember the poor. Without question, this must be one aspect of a sincere response to God, not the chief means of obtaining such a relationship.
In the second part of this reading, Jesus similarly discredited ostentatious fasting, although that too had been an ancient tradition in Israel. The great liturgical fast occurred on the Day of Atonement. It could be undertaken on other occasions too: in personal mourning, intercession or petition for Yahweh's aid, or as a national act in the face of some calamity. Total abstinence from food indicated absolute dependence on and submission to Yahweh. As we saw in the reading from Isaiah 58 above, the prophetic view held that whatever moral value fasting might have should be enhanced by compassion for the poor and continual social justice.
It would appear that in Jesus time, despite there being a strong connection between fasting and prayer, the practice had become something of a fetish for the publicly pious. Is our use of ashes spotting the forehead a similar ostentation? Did Jesus direct the main thrust of this passage at the Pharisees in particular? Their meticulous attention to details of the law would have made them a prime target for his sarcasm. He directed his followers to do their fasting in private and with certain aspects of rejoicing. Unlike John the Baptist and the Pharisees, he did not urge them to be too strict about it. Primarily, he recognized it as a spiritual discipline.
Perhaps it was for this reason that the early church adopted the practice, especially in preparation for baptism. By the late 4th century, Cyril of Jerusalem was counseling a forty day pre-baptismal fast prior to Easter, the traditional time for baptizing new catechumens. By the 5th century it had become the subject of discussion as having an apostolic origin. Rightly or wrongly, this was the probable origin of the later Lenten fast. It is not impossible that the general practice of a Lenten fast made a spiritual virtue of a real necessity. During the Early Middle Ages (aka Dark Ages) food production had fallen to such a low level as to force the reduction of food consumption during the late winter and early spring. Our English word Lent itself is no more than a Germanic word for spring when the hours of daylight lengthen.