For Feb. 22, 2012: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2,12-27

Locusts are grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. This is the army that Joel tells us has descended as a sign of the day of the Lord. Joel calls every living soul in Judah to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.


Further thoughts

Cultures differ in how contrition is expressed, but in most cultures some expression is expected—and healthy.

If I stand on someone’s toe, it is not enough for me to feel sorry. I have to act. The owner of the toe needs to feel me move off it, see my shoulders droop, and hear me beg pardon—but so do I: I must register my error and confess it in order to own it. As we heard a few weeks ago, when Jonah preached that God would destroy Nineveh, everyone from the king on down put on mourning clothes and gathered together to pray earnestly for God’s mercy; the demonstration was toward God, but for the Ninevites themselves the changed clothes symbolize the changed hearts throughout the city. Similarly, Joel calls the people of Judah to assemble publicly and weep partly as a sign for the Lord to whom they turn but also for the people of Judah themselves.

Nor is it enough to go through the motions if I in fact refuse to feel contrite. If I apologize chiefly to impress an the onlookers, or if I apologize for standing on the toe without moving off it, my words will ring hollow. At that point I have offended yet again. Thus Joel counsels the people of Judah that what they should rend is their hearts: torn clothing that does not reflect a spirit of repentance is really nothing but a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being better theater than theology, if the gestures of praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

Being contrite, then, is a good thing—in its time. There is a point past which too much contrition is too much. Once I am off the toe and have asked and been offered forgiveness, continuing to apologize and apologize for having been on the toe starts to sound a bit like declaring that I alone have the right to determine how forgivable I am. If I have repented sincerely and been forgiven sincerely, it is time to square my drooping shoulders, give thanks, and turn to doing what needs to be done. Paul’s great laundry list of difficulties and obstacles is neither a boast of his superiority nor a ploy for our sympathies, but rather a sober account of what he and we can surmount thanks to the grace that lifts up our chins, dries our tears, and strengthens us to go back out to bear Christ into the world.

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