Ash Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Isaiah 58:1-22
Psalm 103
Psalm 103:8-14
II Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
St. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Background:  Ash Wednesday

Mary Claire van Orsdal’s words[1] seem to best express not only the intent of the day but it’s deep purpose as well.  Her vision of our humanity and God’s implicit grace further defines the day.

Whoever on that medieval day
Decided that it had to be ashes
To sign the season, was in touch with death
But he’d forgotten the place of red earth,
Remembered in the gut by those who know
Dirt mixed with the blood of woman giving birth.

The flesh of one so full of hope cries out,
Comes pushing now the growing, wintered well
In her womb, wailing songs of the longing
For life and love and gentleness of green
And a springtime sun to be welcoming
For us, to warm us out of these our tombs
To bid us light and peace and graciousness.

So we are signed with earth – with death and birth.

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?'"

Written some time after the dissolution of the northern tribes, and the similar fate visited upon Jerusalem and its temple, this oracle seems to come from some time well into the post-exilic period.  The world has imploded into a small community gathered around a rebuilt temple.  In such a diminished world, Joel’s words have even more power.  Having never witnessed an invasion of locusts, Joel gives to the reader powerful images of destruction, images that hearkened back to the destruction under Assyria and Babylon.  All of this seems to be a stand in for the theological point that the prophet wishes to make.  The visitation by the voracious insects is a sign of the great “Day of the Lord,” a vision that will last for generations to come.

The lectionary skips verses 3 through 16, and then bids us contemplate a “Summons to Prayer and Penance”, an appropriate reading for this day.  Like Jeremiah, who saw the Law written on our hearts, Joel is not satisfied with spiritual understandings of the cult.  “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”  Though the call has its symbolic aspects, the prophet paints them in tones not only of urgency, but also of reality itself.  There is hope – a hope that God will yet relent from a judgment previous given and seen.  The universality of the call is seen in the list of those who are called to repentance.  Normally in times of difficulty and trouble, these categories within the community would have been dismissed from duty, but here they are specifically called out to attend: children, infants, bridegrooms and brides – all are called to the temple to not only offer but to be an offering of prayer as well.  “Spare your people, O Lord.”  All of this is envisioned as a grand liturgical procession of both priests and peoples united in one intent – the intent of repentance and prayer.

Breaking open Joel:

1.     When have you been called out of life and into prayer?
2.     What about repentance?
3.     Is it only disaster that provides a focus on God?


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 by one of the later Isaiahs.  Its subject is that of fasting, a ritual response both at the time of death within the family or tribe, or at a time of national disaster.  While Joel (see above) in the specific context of a local emergency, this Isaiah describes the practice in more general terms, applicable to any appropriate occasion. 

The prophet is bidden to speak out with a strong voice, with the harsh sounding vocables of the people’s language, to announce a call to the fast.  It is not met well, for the people, confident in their own religious practice, wonder why the prophet is calling upon them, in the name of YHWH, to do more.  “
Why do we fast, but you do not see? 
 Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" The prophet’s response could be spoken to our time as well.  In short, he announces that even on these great days of fasting it is business as usual.  The workers are shamefully treated, there are quarrels and fighting, the day is not honored.  Not unlike St. Paul, this Isaiah supplies a list of appropriate behaviors that move beyond ritual observances (bowing, and wearing sackcloth and ashes).  Instead these things must be observed: sharing bread with those who need it, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, and (beautifully put) “and not turning your back on your own flesh.” There is to be a divine interchange between rich and poor, the one supplying substance for living, and the other supplying a patient waiting upon the God of creation.

A final note in the last verses reminds us of when this was written.  “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt.”  Apparently the city walls are still in ruins, and no temple is mentioned, so it might still be ruined as well.  However, Isaiah does not just mark time here.  In a tight and apt phrase, the prophet once again reminds us of his purpose.  “You shall be called the repairer of the breach.”  It is one thing to restore the city, and another to restore the common family engendered by the God of Israel.  Beyond that there is the purpose of  “restoring the breach” between God and the community itself.  Isn’t it interesting?  Fasting is tied to feeding, clothing, and healing.  It is a shared suffering and a shared feast.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     Do you ever fast?  Why or why not?
2.     Do you give up something for Lent?  Why?
3.     Do you give to others when you fast?

Psalm 103 or 103:8-14 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 psalm begins with an interior thought, that the faithful person should bless God from the center of his or her very existence.  That is the intent of “O my soul”, but the Hebrew is of a much more profound and existential nature.  This point of blessing, deep in our very selves, soon expands into a much greater continuum.  First, however, the author reviews why we are called to bless YHWH in the first place.  The verbs help us: who forgives, who heals, who redeems, who crowns, who satisfies, who renews.  These are the righteous acts that God performs in our midst.  The psalmist calls to mind the prophet Moses (see Exodus 34:6) who realizes God’s compassion and mercy.  The relationship of God and God’s people is one of forgetting, “God nurses no lasting anger.” 

In expansion of our consideration of God’s mercy, the psalmist expands time and space itself, “For as the heavens tower over the earth…As far as the east is from the west…so far has (God) removed our sins from us.”  We have the advantage, as a modern people, to know well the images that the psalmist draws for us.  It is our privilege to know a vision of millions of galaxies, and the unimaginable distance they are from us and from one another.  “So far has (God) removed our sins from us.”  Other examples are invoked, the love of a parent for a child, of the Creator for the created.  God knows the place from which we come, “recalls that we are dust”, and knows our “devisings” and the intent of our hearts.  None-the-less, God is the one whose kindness is forever and ever. 

The final vision is of God enthroned in the heavens, which all are called upon to bless:  God’s messengers (you angels of (God’s), God’s armies (hosts), and all (God’s) works.  Then all implodes back to the self, “Bless, O my being, the Lord!”

Breaking open Psalm 103:
  1. Are there things for which you have not forgiven yourself?  What?
  2. Are there things that you think God will not forgive for you?  What?
  3. How great has God’s mercy been for you?

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.

Paul announces his theme in the final verses of chapter 5, “be reconciled to God.” This has been both the theme in Joel and in the later Isaiah.  Paul underscores this theme with an understanding of what God has done for us in Jesus, “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.”  If Joel had an understanding of the “Great Day of YHWH,” Paul has a different, and his mind a more complete vision of that day.  “At an acceptable time…on a day of salvation.”  Paul sees a God that not only listens to us, but works with us as well.  Then, in typical Pauline fashion, he supplies us with lists.  The first is a record of his own working with God, “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings,” and so on.  Paul wants his audience to know the level of his cooperation in the ministry given to them.  The final list, of paradoxes, shows the results of the favor that God shows to us through Jesus, “imposters – true, unknown – well known, dying – alive” and so the comparisons go on, giving full scope to our expectations regarding salvation.  The final condition of “having nothing and yet possessing everything,” serves as an excellent summary of God’s action, Jesus’ offering, and Paul’s (and even our own) ministry.

Breaking open II Corinthians:
  1. Has your faith caused you some the afflictions that Paul mentions?  Which?
  2. How did these events strengthen your faith?
  3. What are some off the paradoxes of faith in your life?

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."

When I was a child, this text was used as a weapon against Roman Catholics, who were seen as “practicing their piety before others.”  It was the log in our own eye that evaded us, and kept us from seeing the whole family of God.  So Jesus seeks to bless us with an understanding of how to give alms.  In our society, talk of money and generosity is avoided at all costs, so we need to listen even more deeply to Jesus’ instruction.  In the Talmud, the Baba Bathra, gives us some direction similar to Jesus’ instruction to keep things “secret”.  “One who does alms in secret is greater than Moses our teacher.”  God, however, sees all, even those things done in secret.  God will reward.

Two more instructions follow in our pericope: one on Fasting (verses 16-18) and one on Wealth (verses 19-21).  There is a usage here that reminds us of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, “I tell you that they already have their reward.”  Fasting shown in the face of others has a limited return.  Fasting, like the giving of alms is done in secret, and will have its own reward.  The section on wealth follows the New Testament’s constant theme of putting off worldly goods.  Other passages about concern for daily matters as detractive in our relationship with God are common in Jesus’ teaching.  It is interesting to note the similarity of certain Greek stoics with Jesus’ teaching here, such as: Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things”[2] If things become our heart and our mind, we will have distanced ourselves from God.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     How do you give alms?
2.     What holy things do you do in secret?
3.     How have you been rewarded?

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 questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Baker, J., Kaehler, E., and Mazar, P., (1990), A Lent Sourcebook The Forty Days, Liturgy    Training Publications, Chicago, page 20.
[2]Epictitus, (55 – 135 CE), Enciridion.


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