Sunday, March 02, 2014

Happy Ash Wednesday!

Happy Lent, everyone!  Let's indulge in a little commentary on the Readings for Ash Wednesday:

1. Our First Reading is 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 short book of Joel is best remembered for the prophet’s stirring call for sincere, interior conversion on the part of God’s people (2:12-18; proclaimed each Ash Wednesday), and his vivid depiction of the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit of God (Joel 3:1-5), a text from which St. Peter preached at Pentecost.

         Nothing is known of the life and ministry of the prophet Joel, aside from the very little that can be gleaned from indications in the book (e.g., he was the son of an unknown Pethu’el, Joel 1:1).  Nor does the book contain any there clear references to datable events.  Because (1) the king is never mentioned, (2) the Temple is functioning (Joel 1:17), (3) other nations have misused the Judeans and divided their land (4:1-8; 19), and (4) some passages appear influenced by other prophets (e.g. Ezekiel, Zechariah), most contemporary scholars imagine a post-exilic date for the prophet’s ministry and the writing of his book (c. 450–400 BC), after the Temple had been rebuilt.  However, none of the evidence above is conclusive, and ancient Jewish tradition remembered the book as an early work, placing it among the older prophets (Hosea, Amos, Micah) in the structure of the Twelve.  In the history of modern scholarship, dozens of plausible proposals for the book’s date have been advanced, from the ninth century BC through the third.  It has been accurately said that the book “resists dating.”  This may be, in part, because it is a liturgical document that was re-used in the Temple cult, and thus became generalized to fit changing historical circumstances.

The Book of Joel divides into two major sections: Part 1, a lament to God and response from God occasioned by a plague of locusts on Judah (chs. 1-2); and Part 2, a collection of oracles about the eschatological Day of the Lord.

Part 1 of Joel can be further subdivided into three sections.  The prophet begins with a long poem (ch. 1) that combines vivid descriptions of the devastation of the locust plague on Judah with calls for nationwide repentance.  This is followed by a prophetic oracle (2:1-17) in which Joel employs the imagery of a locust plague to describe a coming invasion of Judah by a northern power (vv. 1-11) and then renews his call for national repentance (vv. 12-17).  Part 1 concludes with an oracle of salvation and restoration (2:18-27) in which the LORD heeds the repentance of his people.

Part 2 of Joel can also be subdivided into three parts.  Two colorful oracles about the “signs and salvation” of the Day of the LORD (3:1-5 and 4:17-21) stress that supernatural signs among the heavenly bodies and on earth (supernatural streams, rivers, and agricultural abundance) will accompany the coming of the LORD and lead to the salvation of a remnant of Judah on Mount Zion.  Between these two oracles, there is a lengthy description of the eschatological battle of the LORD against the nations in the Valley of “Jehoshaphat” (Heb. “the LORD has judged!”), when all their crimes against his people will be avenged (4:1-16).

Both parts of the Book of Joel have continued to exercise a significant role in subsequent Jewish and Christian liturgy and theology.
Concerning Part 1, the locust invasion of Judah (Joel 1) and the military invasion of which it is the forerunner (Joel 2:1-11) have been understood as types of all the situations of dire distress into which the community of God’s people fall due to their sin.  Therefore, the Church has continued to use Joel’s stirring calls for communal repentance, with their particular emphasis on interior conversion rather than merely external acts of self-denial, as models and articulations of Christ’s continuing call for repentance within his Church.  In fact, Joel’s great call for repentance in 2:12-18 is granted a place of great liturgical prominence in the Christian calendar: it is the First Reading every year for the beginning of the Great Fast of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

The Church has understood Part 2 of Joel (Jl 3-4), with its descriptions of the Day of the LORD, as referring to both Christ’s First and Second Comings.  The miraculous signs in the heavens (3:3-4; 4:15), the shaking of the earth (4:16), the outpouring of God’s spirit on all his people (3:1-3), and the opening up of the river of life from the Temple (4:18), are all seen to be fulfilled in the events surrounding the Lord’s Passion, Death, Resurrection, and the Descent of the Spirit at Pentecost (see Matt 27:45,51-54; Mk 15:33,38; Lk 23:44-45; Jn 19:34; Acts 2:1-4,14-21;4:31).  Yet these phenomena, together with the last battle against the nations (Jl 4:1-16), are also anticipated with respect to the Second Coming of the Lord in judgment (CCC §675-77).

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17
R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

This is the same Psalm as employed in this upcoming Sunday liturgy, so for comments on it, see below my post for this coming Sunday.
3. The Second Reading is 2 Cor 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.

St. Paul here expresses the perennial mission of the Church: to call the world to repentance.

St. Paul is an apostle, a member, model, and representative of the hierarchy of the Church.  What is the hierarchy of the Church, the leadership, the clergy?  They are “ambassadors of Christ” appealing for the world to be reconciled to God.  Is that not a good description of Pope Francis, the successor of Peter, Paul’s fellow Apostle?  Haven’t we all been touched by the dramatic gestures and plain-spoken words that Pope Francis has used to call people to receive God’s forgiveness?  The Pope is providing a model for the role of every bishop, every priest.  The leadership of the Church has the perpetual role to be ambassadors, to repeat Jesus’ preaching, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!”  This Lent, Pope Francis issues that call for all the world, and in each region the local bishop, successor of the Apostles, calls all Catholics and other persons of goodwill to experience reconciliation with the Father.
4.  The Gospel is Mt 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.”

This is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount on the practice of the traditional “three forms of piety”: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  As I note in the commentary for the Sunday Readings below, these forms of piety are intended to combat within us the “threefold concupiscence”: Lust of the Flesh (physical desires), Lust of the Eyes (Greed/Avarice), and Pride.  Almsgiving mortifies Lust of the Eyes, Prayer mortifies Pride (because prayer acknowledges our dependence on God), and Fasting mortifies Lust of the Flesh.

Jesus’ biggest concern in all three teachings is that we guard against pride.  If our piety calls attention to itself and causes us to look “righteous” in the eyes of others, it could very well backfire and end up driving us into spiritual arrogance rather than holiness.  What’s the answer?  Keep it on the “DL”, as the saying goes today.  Your Lenten mortifications can be challenging: they should hurt.  Pope Francis says: “Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt” (from his Lenten Message dated 12-26-13).  But keep your mortifications out of sight, so far as it depends on you.


Nick said...

"Rend your hearts, not your garments," sounds like Jesus' piercing on the Cross and the Temple's curtain being torn.

John Bergsma said...

Interesting connection, Nick.