Posts Tagged 'locusts'

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 Oct. 27, 2013: Proper 25, Year C

The Reading            Joel 2:23-32

The verses that precede this Sunday’s reading tell a grim story of Israel’s devastation by locusts. But then the prophet Joel turns to song: God will restore the people’s physical fortunes. More wondrously yet, God will pour out spiritual gifts on all: men and women, young and old, even the most humbly born, all like true children of God.

The Response            Psalm 65

“Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

This Sunday we read verses from near the end of the second letter to Timothy, and near the end of Paul’s own life. A libation is the ritual pouring of a drink in offering to a deity, and it was part of Greek burial customs. As the voice in 2 Timothy tells it, Paul has persevered—though not by his own strength but God’s.

The Gospel            Luke 18:9-14

“‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Proper 25 this Sunday ring variations on a theme of reaping as one has sown—or has not. In prior verses Joel depicted the impact of drought and ravenous locusts: as verse 2:3b has it, “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” Joel, seeing this as the Lord’s judgment on Zion’s sin, called upon all the people, from the king on down, to stop whatever they were doing and repent. They do so. Then God promises to give again the plenty that the natural disasters took away. Is this a deal, with the penitence of the people buying restitution for the nation as a whole? No, for greater gifts of the spirit come as well, and to even the seemingly least significant. It is as Jeremiah 31:33-34 said last week: God will make a covenantal relationship with every single individual, just because it’s God’s choice.

The gospel parable is commonly read as a cautionary tale: strutting Pharisee versus humbled tax collector. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that Pharisees were widely admired (if less widely imitated) for their piety and adherence to religious law, while tax collectors were despised sellouts and thugs who lived off the sums they extorted from the defenseless, minus the taxes they passed through to the hated Roman overlords. The parable thus upsets expectations: for a tax collector to be the one coming out right with God is shocking!

The gospel can also be read, however, in counterpoint to the epistle reading. Paul himself was noted from youth as a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and his own writings suggest that he never really got over that; at the same time, they depict a man aware of his own limitations. The Paul-voice looking back in 2 Timothy 4 depicts—perhaps more accurately than Paul himself would dare—the untiring early hero of the Christian faith who has sown in the fields God set before him and, on balance and with God’s help, done it well; his also will be the harvest.

For there is no more wrong with knowing that one has diligently used God’s gifts to good ends than there is in recognizing in others that they can rightly say the same.