Feb 14, 2018: Ash Wednesday (ABC)

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Introduction

Lent is the forty day season prior to Easter, which begins today, on Ash Wednesday.

Lent is also closely associated with the transition from winter to spring.  The word “lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, Lencten, which describes the lengthening of days after the winter solstice.

The season of Lent has been observed since apostolic times as a period of reflection and penitence for those who would undergo baptism on Easter, and a time for all sinners to repent.

Ash Wednesday is named for the devotional practice of having ashes placed on our foreheads, which originated in imitation of the sackcloth and ashes worn by public penitents.  It is meant to call to mind the inevitability of our death — a sobering start to the season of Lent.

1st Reading – Joel 2:12-18

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
for the LORD, your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
proclaim a fast,
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
gather the children
and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
and the bride her chamber.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people.

The book of Joel was composed about 400 B.C.  During this time, a terrible invasion of locusts ravaged Judah.  So frightful was the scourge that Joel visualized it as a symbol of the coming day of the Lord, which is the prevailing them of the book that bears his name.

In the face of this catastrophe, Joel exhorts the people to repent, to return to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart,

The Lord invites his people to escape from the scourge by returning to him with their whole heart.

with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;

Outward visible signs of repentance, expressing sorrow and shame (see Ezra 10:1–6; Esther 4:3; Jonah 3:5–9).

Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.

In the Jewish culture, ripping one’s garments was a sign of great grief. But what good is such an expression if it doesn’t accompany genuine emotion?

In other words, do penance, but be certain that it is not just an outward show.

For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.

The call to return is based on the Lord’s dramatic self-revelation of his character to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, a description frequently repeated throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2).

Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing,

The hoped-for result of the repentance is that Yahweh will cease punishing and bless instead.  There is a play on words here in Hebrew: let us repent of, or turn away from, our sins against him, and return to him in a way of duty — because then we may hope that he will repent of his judgments against us and return to us in a way of mercy.

Although Yahweh is free and cannot be manipulated by the people, his response is not disconnected from their actions. The people hope for a blessing.

Offerings and libations for the LORD, your God.

The drought and locust plague have destroyed the grain and fruit crops – there is nothing
to offer in the Temple. With restored fertility, the sacrifices will be reinstated.

Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly;

Further instructions for returning to the Lord include a calling to public national repentance, to be exercised in the solemn assembly, as a national act, for the glory of God.  Such a public display would be intended to be seen by neighboring nations, who might witness their lamentation and the hoped-for mercy granted in return.

Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room, and the bride her chamber.

Everyone is called to join the penance ceremony: the elders, the children and nursing infants, even the bride and groom on their wedding night. The staccato quality of the Hebrew poetry in these verses emphasizes the urgency of the situation.

Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,

The priests stood in the open space between the outdoor altar of holocausts and the temple building, facing the latter in order to look toward God, who was present in the holy of holies.  Since they have no offerings to make due to the famine, here they make a spiritual sacrifice.

And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them!

The priestly lament appeals to the Lord’s sense of ownership and pride in his covenant people (see also Deuteronomy 9:26-29; Psalm 44:11–14, 74:2, 79:10, 115:2; Micah 7:10).

Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

In laments, the sufferer often complains that his adversaries ask him where his God is
(Psalm 42:3 (42:4 in NAB); 79:10; Malachi 2:17).

Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.

Their prayers are answered; Yahweh relents.

2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2

Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.

In today’s second reading, Paul exhorts us to reconcile ourselves with God today, for “now is the acceptable time.”

Brothers and sisters: we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.

The word “ambassador” generally referred to an emperor’s or king’s legates. Here, Paul actually uses the verb form, presbeuo, which gives an active sense: “we are ‘ambassadoring’ on behalf of Christ.”

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 

The plea is clear: on behalf of Christ, we ask you to accept his gift of reconciliation.

Paul is appealing directly to the Corinthians, but he is also summing up the appeal he gives to all the world. Reconciliation is the establishment or restoration of loving fellowship after estrangement.

For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,

An important summary of the gospel message. God imputed our sin to Christ, who was acknowledged as sinless (Hebrews 4:15). God as judge assigned the responsibility of our sin to Christ, making it possible for him to be punished justly for that sin (Isaiah 53:6; 1 Peter 2:24).

Christ was our substitute, accepting the penalty of sin in our place. In other words, Christ became the sin sacrifice.

so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Not only did God impute our sin to Christ, he also imputed the potential for Christ’s perfect righteousness to us. Note the phrase “might become” — we are not fully perfected, but we now have the basis for the progressive realization of God’s righteousness in our moral character. Our thoughts and deeds are sanctified in increasing measure until we receive perfect righteousness in heaven.

Just as Christ, who knew no sin, was made sin for us, we, who have no righteousness of our own, are made the righteousness of God in Christ.

Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.

It will be fruitless for us to hear the gospel unless we believe it, and if we believe it, we will comply with it.

In other words, human cooperation is essential if the power of the gospel is to act effectively (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 15:10).

For he says, “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.”

Paul quotes the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 49:8.

In the historical context of Isaiah 49, the prophet speaks of the time of the restoration of Israel, when all will acknowledge not only the people of God, but God himself. Here Paul implicitly argues that Isaiah’s prophecy has found its fulfillment in Christ and in the call for reconciliation which the ambassadors for Christ bring.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

The present time is the only opportunity to accept God’s grace.  Yesterday’s grace is pointless if we squander or deny it today.  Tomorrow is unknown and may never arrive.  Now is the time.

Gospel – Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus addresses almsgiving, prayer, and fasting — three great Christian duties which we emphasize even more during the Lenten season.  By them we do homage and service to God with our three principal interests: by prayer with our souls, by fasting with our bodies, by alms-giving with our estates. We must not only depart from evil, but do good — and as shown here, do it well.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.

Jesus acknowledges the righteousness of the acts, but only when done in submission to God and out of love for him, rather than seeking human glory.

When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.

In the New Testament, the hypocrite is one who claims to have a relationship with God and to love righteousness, but is self-seeking and often self-deceived.

The reward they have received is the praise of others, which is what they were seeking (instead of true righteousness before God).

But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

This is probably an allusion to the placement of the offerings chest on the right hand of the passage into the temple, so that those who entered put their gifts into it with the right hand.

Not “letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing” would mean two things: 1) concealing their gift as much as possible, so that those standing on their left side would be unaware of their offering, and 2) that we must not observe our own offering too much, since our left hand is obviously part of us; that is, we must not applaud and admire ourselves.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Prayer is given the same treatment as almsgiving.  As with almsgiving, God sees and repays in secret.  God’s awareness of our every thought and deed is a terror to hypocrites but a comfort to sincere Christians.

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The topic of fasting follows the same theme as that of prayer and almsgiving.  For the third time, we are taught that we should do good works because they are good works, not because it will give us a good name.

Anointing symbolized rejoicing (Psalm 23:5; 45:7; 104:15; Isaiah 61:3), but it was also part of daily routine except when fasting (Daniel 10:3). Not to anoint oneself could be an attempt to appear more pious than others.

In Chapter 5 of Matthew, which occurs just before this reading, Jesus teaches that we must avoid “heart-sins” such as “heart-adultery” and “heart-murder.”  Likewise, here Jesus outlines the way to maintain “heart-religion”: doing what we do from an inward, vital principle, that we may be approved of God, not that we may be applauded of men.

Connections and Themes

Ash Wednesday. Both the reading from Joel and the gospel reading acknowledge the goodness of (and need for) prayer and fasting, but both also remind us that a genuine interior disposition is essential: Return to me with all your heart…. Rend your hearts, not your garments. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting are to be done in a way that changes the heart and deepens our commitment to God and to others, not in order to impress people with our devotion.

However, Ash Wednesday isn’t just about penitence; it’s also about making a joyous return to the Lord, a joy that Saint Paul captures in the second reading. Because of the eternal life that Christ has gained for us, Paul writes of a transformation of being in which humanity can now share.  As we approach God in mourning and penitence on Ash Wednesday, our hearts should be full of joy, for behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!

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