For Feb. 13, 2013: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The prophet Joel, most probably writing in the fifth century before Christ, describes an enormous army assailing the land of Judah. It is an army of locusts: grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. Joel tells us it is a sign of the day of the Lord, and calls every living soul to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Response            Psalm 103:8-14

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.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same each liturgical year, but the preceding Sunday’s readings for the end of Epiphany vary, and the differences set up intriguing shifts in perspective from one year to the next.

A common thread for Year C has to do with light and darkness. Last Sunday we read of Moses exuding light after his encounters with the living God, and we gawked with the disciples as they saw the flesh-and-blood Jesus transfigured into something more like Light of Light, True God Of True God, and we heard the epistle extend the point that going deliberately and mindfully into the presence of the Light of Lights has a way of rubbing off on a person. And well it should: human beings are clearly designed to respond to the Light.

Today’s readings bring us face to face with the dark. We human beings aren’t the Light: we are reckless, feckless, and sometimes mindless. Jesus has to tell us to start doing the right thing because it is right, not in order to look right to all the people we’re sure are either taking cues from us or potshots at us. How easy it is to absorb the light we’re intended to reflect!

Furthermore, we’re mortal. The smudging on my forehead of dark ashes—from bright fire applied to last year’s living palm frond—reminds me that I too am not far from my end, and I tremble and hope in the darkness for forbearance I don’t deserve. The sight of ashes on your forehead should remind me that you are in the same fearful boat as I, that a share of the burden to offer forbearance to you lies with me. Joel’s call quite properly extends this burden to the entire people, infants and all; Paul’s list of difficulties paradoxically reminds us that, to misinterpret Matthew 11:30 (but usefully), this burden truly is Light.

Can any of us really get to stand fully in the Light if all of us can’t?

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