Ash Wednesday - 13 February 2013

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 103
II Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Saint Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


Background:  Ashes
Oddly enough, this day is one of the most commonly celebrated liturgical days in the West, but what are the roots of this practice?  For peoples of the ancient near east, sprinkling ashes upon oneself or sitting in ashes signaled to the society that one was in a state of humiliation, penitence, or grief.  When mourning, the ashes were put on the head.  One example is Tamar’s public reaction to her rape by Amnon, Tamar put dust on her head, tore the magnificent dress which she was wearing, laid her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.” (II Samuel 13:19.)  Another example is the reaction of the people of Nineveh to the sermon by Jonah, where they repent in sackcloth and ashes.  Job (42:6) gives an example appropriate to the liturgy of the day when he “repents in dust and ashes”.  The ashes can also symbolize worthlessness, as in Genesis 18:27, where Abraham in his controversy with God over the fate of Sodom indicates that he is nothing but “dust and ashes.”

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, a prophet or spokesperson attached to the Temple erected by Ezra (ca. 515 BCE), comments on a plague of locusts that has devastated the community.  He is very familiar with temple ritual, and the scene he paints in this reading is sharply drawn by his familiarity.  His intent is to turn the people from the panic that naturally results from a disaster to a stance of prayer and repentance.  His tactic is based on the history of disaster for the people of Judea, either military or natural.  Thus the contents of his call are a remembrance of the disaster, a day of darkness and gloom, to a lamentation that speaks to the reality of the situation.  Thus we are not looking at a specific temple liturgy, but rather one that is wrung out of the people’s misery.

Here, like the prophets before him, especially Jeremiah, he takes liturgical gesture and takes it from the everyday to a spiritual understanding.  Rend your hearts and not your clothing.  Of equal interest is the community for which this injunctive is intended, as the prophet takes us through all levels of society.  Age and gender are of no matter here, nor is personal disposition.  This is, and we may have some difficulty understanding this, not the intended reaction of individuals, but rather of the whole community.  This action of the whole will be seen by other communities and nations, which have in the past threatened them.  Their action is to affirm that God is their God, active in their life together.

Breaking open Joel:

1.     How are your prayers formed by the realities of your life?
2.     Have you ever rended your heart?
3.     Has your community ever fasted and repented?


Isaiah 58:1-12

Thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:

Shout out, do not hold back!

Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Announce to my people their rebellion,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,

they delight to draw near to God.

"Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today

will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.

This reading comes from a collection of post-exilic poems that take up almost three chapters of Deutero Isaiah.  They address the needs of the troubled post-exilic community.  The prophet offers comfort, penitence, and in this poem “true fasting” as practical subjects for his hearers.

The practice of fasting accompanied national difficulties, and Judah had its fill of such troubles.  Here, though, following the return, one would expect there to be songs of joy.  The times are still fraught with difficulty, and both prophet and priest call the people to fast.  In an emotion similar to Joel’s, the prophet sees the fasting as a uniting of people, and not a cause for division.  Is not this the fast that I choose – to loose the bonds of injustice?  There is a social as well as a theological program here.  Out of the darkness of his vision, the prophet soon embraces a more eschatological tone, describing a land like a watered garden, (a memory from Babylon or Persia?) and describing the people as repairer(s) of the breach.  Again, the emphasis is not on the individual but rather on the whole community.

Breaking open Joel:

1.     Is there a social aspect to fasting?
2.     How might your fasting help others?
3.     What ideals do you seek for your community?

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.

This may be a thanksgiving psalm, giving rise to the emotions following an illness, see verses 3 and 4.  There is a repetition of the injunctive to bless, and the psalmist gives reason for such blessings.  Again we must be careful, even though this might be an individual’s psalm of thanksgiving that the focus is on the community and not the individual.  The recitations of God’s gifts of goodness, especially forgiveness, which are given to the community, take up several lines of the poem.  There is also a sense of the fullness of this grace drawn in both vertical space (for as the heavens loom high over the earth), and horizontal space (as the east is far from the west), which indicates the overarching character of God’s love, and the separation of the community from its sins. It is this grace that is the focal point of the psalm especially when used on this day.

Breaking open Psalm 103
1.       For what might you give thanks to God?
2.       How is forgiveness a gift?
3.       Do you have sins that are difficult to shake?

2 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 a time that struggles with sin and indeed the concept of sin, we are forced as hearers or as preachers to wrestle with what Paul means here – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.  Each of these usages may indicate something entirely different.  In Hebrews 4:15 (For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin), we have an understanding about Jesus in sin.  In these verses Jesus is made sin for us.  What does that mean?  Here the word sin might be understood in the Hebrew sense as a “sacrifice for sin.”  The word used for such a sacrifice in the Septuagint is the Greek word peri hamartias.  Paul’s concern here is our reconciliation to God through the effective work of Jesus.

Paul, however, wants to look beyond the singular act of Jesus as sin for us, to the realities of faith in the present day.  He prepares one of his lists, and then a collection of paradoxes.  The list is of the obstacles that one encounters in reaching for this reconciliation to God.  Paul speaks as one who intimately knows these obstructions. In the list that follows he shows the results of such a realization of God’s grace.  Not all will recognize in us God’s good work.

Breaking open II Corinthians:

1.               What are your thoughts about sin?
2.               What does Paul mean when he says that Jesus became sin for you?
3.               What stands in the way of your reconciliation with God?

St. 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."

Matthew gathers a collection of sayings on righteousness, both useful, and not useful. The translation used in the lectionary rightfully replaces righteousness for almsgiving, the original intent of the word in this context.  Jesus urges us not to “act out” hypocrites, as actors might do.  Our works are to be genuine and known only to us, and thus to God.  In the later verses (16-21) Jesus warns against the externals only in that they seek public recognition of something that is really only between the individual and God.  What is at question here is the intention of the one fasting.  Finally, Jesus wants the hearer to understand what is of true value in life, and uses the example of hiding away coin (a common practice).  It becomes the question that comes before the issue of almsgiving and fasting. For whom or for what are we doing this.  Examining our values might be an opportunity that is advanced by fasting, and almsgiving may be a response to such an examination.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What kind of alms do you give?
  2. Why do you give alms, what motivates you?
  3. Do others know that you give alms?

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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