The classic opener on Ash Wednesday, the first Scripture that invites us deeply into Lent. Are we ready for it? We hear it every year. Has it become too familiar? I’m not sure it works well in a communal reconciliation, stirring as it is. My stance would be to honor it as Ash Wednesday’s first reading and leave it there.
But as a reminder and assist for individual reconciliation, it’s a bit long, but wholly fitting:
Yet even now—oracle of the LORD—
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God,
For he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,
and relenting in punishment.
Perhaps he will again relent
and leave behind a blessing,
Grain offering and libation
for the LORD, your God.
Blow the horn in Zion!
Proclaim a fast,
call an assembly!
Gather the people,
sanctify the congregation;
Assemble the elderly;
gather the children,
even infants nursing at the breast;
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her bridal tent.
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests weep,
let the ministers of the LORD weep and say:
“Spare your people, LORD!
do not let your heritage become a disgrace,
a byword among the nations!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Then the LORD grew jealous for his land and took pity on his people. In response the LORD said to his people:
I am sending you
grain, new wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied by them;
Never again will I make you
a disgrace among the nations.
I heard a good homily at church yesterday. Our associate pastor mentioned a hospital visit he once made on Ash Wednesday. A non-Catholic noted his container of ashes and asked him a few questions. The most pointed of them was this: what effect do those ashes have on the people who receive them?
In the context of this reading, perhaps we can ask the same of this momentous event described by the prophet Joel. The immediate effect is obvious: a large number of people performing a community event, a collective repentance. Like the season of Lent.
But outside of Lent, does our communal and personal history look more like the up-and-down relationship of the Israelites with God? A period of intense reform and renewal, followed by a long and gradual backsliding into wrongdoing? Does Lent offer us any promise of a gradually deeper union with God? Or are we reliving the same event time after time?
Naturally, that is all part of the human condition. We aren’t perfect. We cannot aspire to perfection, especially in this life. But when we come to Ash Wednesday, to Lent, and to this reading, will it inspire us in some new way? Will this reading make a difference in our lives? Even just for today?