Posts Tagged 'ash wednesday'

For Feb. 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

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

In the year 400 BC, hard times have come upon Judah: locusts have ravaged the crops. The prophet Joel sees this calamity as a sign that the Day of the Lord’s judgment is right now. Joel calls for repentance—not just by individuals, but by the people gathered together, that the Lord may bless all the people.

The Response                                              Psalm 103:8-14

Joel pointed out the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people and called them into solemn assembly to repent. Psalm 103 follows up on Joel’s promise of the Lord’s mercy and readiness to remove our sins from us.

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

Like Joel in today’s first reading, the apostle Paul 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

Joel advised the people to tear not their clothes but their hearts: torn clothing without repentance is no better than a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being theater rather than theology, if the praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

 

Further thoughts

Using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Old Testament. The tradition of Ash Wednesday for all seems to originate in the seventh century. In a homily composed more than a millennium ago in what the scholars call “rhythmic prose”—prose that has some of the steady beat and alliteration of Old English poetry—the great English cleric Ælfric of Eynsham explains:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
“On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.”
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe for-molsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arísan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

Here is a translation that conveys, a little, both the sense of Ælfric’s words and the rhythm.

On that Wednesday, widely around Earth,
clergy bless, just as is commanded,
clean ashes in church and those then lay
on the heads of mankind, that they may have in mind
that from earth they come and after to dust they go,
just as Almighty God to Adam said
after he had gone against God’s bidding:
‘In struggle you live and by sweat you eat
your bread on earth until you after go
to the selfsame earth that you came out of,
because you are dust and to dust you go.’
Nor is this said of people’s souls
but of people’s bodies that decay unto dust
and after shall at Doomsday through the might of our Lord
all arise out of earth that ever were living.

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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?

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.