Ash Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 103
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Saint Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21


BACKGROUND: Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday, which signals the beginning of the penitential fast of Lent, mirrors Ancient Near Eastern practices at the time of death, mourning, or repentance.  Ashes and sackcloth indicated that an individual was in a state of grieving or remorse.  These practices were inherited by the church, which began to use them as communal rather than individual gestures.  In the 5th Century in Rome, several days served as days of preparation for the First Sunday in Lent.  In time, around the 9th Century, these days were reduced to one day – the Wednesday preceding the first Sunday.  Although the use of ashes was dismissed at the time of the English Reformation, later periods of liturgical renewal saw them reinstated. 

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; 
 sound the alarm on my holy mountain! 
 Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, 
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom, 
 a day of clouds and thick darkness! 
 Like blackness spread upon the mountains
 a great and powerful army comes; 
their like has never been from of old, 
 nor will be again after them 
in ages to come. 
 Yet even now, says the LORD, 
 return to me with all your heart, 
 with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
 rend your hearts and not your clothing. 
 Return to the LORD, your God, 
 for he is gracious and merciful, 
 slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, 
 and relents from punishing. 
 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, 
 and leave a blessing behind him, 
a grain offering and a drink offering
 for the LORD, your God? 
 Blow the trumpet in Zion; 
sanctify a fast; 
 call a solemn assembly; 
 gather the people. 
 Sanctify the congregation; 
 assemble the aged; 
 gather the children, 
 even infants at the breast. 
 Let the bridegroom leave his room, 
 and the bride her canopy. 
Between the vestibule and the altar
 let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. 
Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD, 
 and do not make your heritage a mockery, 
 a byword among the nations. 
 Why should it be said among the peoples, 
 `Where is their God?'"

Joel, an author that seems to be intimately acquainted with the Temple and its ceremonial, appears in a rather calm period in Jewish history.  The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians and the deportations of numbers of people to Babylon seem to be a memory.  Indeed the restoration of the people to their land by Cyrus the Mede during the Persian period also seems to be a past event.  The forced Hellenization of Israel by the general/kings that follow Alexander’s death is not known and is in the future.  The apocalypse that Joel writes about is not of earth shaking importance, but rather local and symbolic importance, namely, a plague of locusts.  People at the time would be distressed because of the danger to the nations food stocks, but would also be mindful of the symbolic significance of such a plague – being reminded of the plagues that crippled Egypt.  Thus Joel calls upon the people to fast, to repent, and to pray – all of this to determine what has gone wrong, what has incurred God’s wrath.  To underscore the national nature of this call, Joel mentions people at every level of society, from infants to adults.  All are to be involved in these penitential acts.  Thus the reading is especially appropriate for Ash Wednesday as Joel invites us as well to the fast.

Breaking open Joel
  1. Have you ever experienced a “national day of prayer” when you felt called to pray for something of national concern?
  2. Do you fast?  If not, why not?
  3. What is your Lenten discipline like

Psalm 103 Benedic, anima mea

Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
and forget not all his benefits.

He forgives all your sins *
and heals all your infirmities;

He redeems your life from the grave *
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;

He satisfies you with good things, *
and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.

The LORD executes righteousness *
and judgment for all who are oppressed.

He made his ways known to Moses *
and his works to the children of Israel.

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.

He will not always accuse us, *
nor will he keep his anger for ever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, *
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *
so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.

As far as the east is from the west, *
so far has he removed our sins from us.

As a father cares for his children, *
so does the LORD care for those who fear him.

For he himself knows whereof we are made; *
he remembers that we are but dust.

Our days are like the grass; *
we flourish like a flower of the field;

When the wind goes over it, it is gone, *
and its place shall know it no more.

But the merciful goodness of the LORD endures for ever on those who fear him, *
and his righteousness on children's children;

On those who keep his covenant *
and remember his commandments and do them.

The LORD has set his throne in heaven, *
and his kingship has dominion over all.

Bless the LORD, you angels of his,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, *
and hearken to the voice of his word.

Bless the LORD, all you his hosts, *
you ministers of his who do his will.

Bless the LORD, all you works of his,
in all places of his dominion; *
bless the LORD, O my soul.

Joel beseeches the mercy of God through the acts of prayer and fasting on the part of the people.  The psalmist in this psalm is at the next stage of the interaction, thanking God for God’s mercy and graciousness.  In verses 3 and 4 we have a clue as to the nature of the thanksgiving – the author has been spared some kind of illness or death.  Using a familiarity with Scripture, the author quotes Exodus 34:6 to give evidence of God’s attitude of mercy and forgiveness.  The relationship of God and People form a covenant that allows for forgiveness regardless of the gravity of the sin.  Verses 11 and 12 give a spatial image of the vastness of God’s love, vertical (heavens loom high over the earth) and horizontal (the east is far from the west).  What seems like a reference to majesty and splendor, the enthronement of God actually indicates the seat of justice – a justice that results in mercy for the people, rather than damnation.

Breaking open Psalm 103
1.     For what have you thanked God?
2.     Have you ever felt that God came meaningfully into your life and made for positive change?
3.     What was your reaction?

II Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
"At an acceptable time I have listened to you, 
 and on a day of salvation I have helped you."

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

In this reading, Paul gives us a sense of two dimensions: time and place.  He begins with the temporal, noting that the very time of Isaiah (the quotation is from IInd Isaiah’s Suffering Servant series) seen by the prophet as “the acceptable day”, the day of God’s favor, is also seen in Paul’s (and the Corinthians’) time.  “See, now is the acceptable time,” Paul points out to the church at Corinth.  The second distinction, that of “place” points out a list of difficulties (affliction, hardships…) and a list of virtues (purity, patience…).  He also points out how he personally lives in a place of paradox (dying, alive; sorrowful, rejoicing).  The acceptable time lives happily in the contradiction of our own lives.  This is an ideal Lenten notion, where in our mourning and penitence we see both joy and salvation.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. Do you live in an “acceptable time of God’s favor?” 
  2. If you feel that you don’t, why do you feel that way?
  3. Are there contradictions in your life?

Saint Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Basic Jewish piety was made up of three simple acts: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  In this discourse, part of the Sermon on the Mount, meant to instruct the disciples, Jesus distinguishes between genuine acts of piety, and those acts intended only for show.  Jesus presses his disciples to enjoy an interior life that is full of piety born out of love of God, neighbor, and finally of self.  The first is born out of the relationship that we have with God, and the second is born out of our common humanity, and the love that God has for all people.  The final (as you love yourself) is a stumbling block for many, not realizing or seeing the love that God has towards us.  Compare the verses in Psalm 103 (7-9) where God surrounds us with love in spite of our short fallings, and graces us with mercy and salvation.  This we rejoice in in secret, and from this flows the almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.  The showy part is dismissed.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Are you public or private about your faith?  How do you show others that you believe?
  2. What about your faith is done in secret?
  3. How do you love yourself, so that you might love your neighbor?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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