Readings: Joel 2.1-2, 12 – 17 (or Isaiah 58.1-12), Psalm 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10; Matthew 6.1 – 6, 16 – 21.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. One meaning of “lent” in Latin is “spring”, but the Church’s Lent turns the usual clichés about spring emerging from the dark of winter on their head: Lent is a time of repentance, beginning with the priest or minister marking us with ashes in the sign of the cross. Just when we thought we were slowly but happily emerging from dark winter days, a vicious flu season, and even football, we are asked to repent. In some ways, the timing could not be worse.
Lent is, of course, a season of the church year. It is frequently not synchronous with other calendars; it even has its own ordinary times. We could ask how Lent’s repentance remembers Advent and Christmas and anticipates Easter and Pentecost: it is part of a larger whole, and the readings struggle with and make a claim about how this is so. But here we focus on the readings for the day in the common lectionary.
Joel’s Israelites are in calamitous circumstances, with worse to come: the Lord’s day of darkness and final judgment. “Yet even now, says the Lord, turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2.12) – - return to the Lord who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (12.13). It is the Lord of abiding graciousness and mercy and steadfast love who turns us – and who may “turn and relent” (2.14), as we turn. Joel calls an entire community to return “with our whole hearts”. Joel does not say “respond with your hearts” rather than with “fasting, with weeping, and with mourning”, as if this only a question of our spiritually interior rather than bodily enacted attitudes. But Joel says we (the whole community) are to “rend our hearts”, not our clothing. But rent hearts are not, by definition, whole. How can a rent heart respond wholely? This is at the core of repentance: a community enacts wholely the fact that we are not whole. But how do we do that? Isaiah reminds us that it is fasting “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58. 6-7). But how to do all this “wholely” when we are not whole?
We need personal examples of repentance. Psalm 51, our response to the reading from Joel, provides one. The Psalm is associated with David’s response to his indictment by Nathan for adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12.1-15). How does one repent of such sins? David’s sin was not simply against Bathsheba and Uriah but against God. Indeed, “against you, you alone, have I sinned” (51.4). What is at stake in Lent is not simply or primarily our repentance in relation to our neighbor, and ourselves. What is crucial is our repentance before God. It is God who must rebuild Jerusalem (and David) (51.18). We can only do as David does: pray for God’s mercy.
Paul provides a different sort of personal example. Paul is speaking of the God “who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5.18). But his ministry of reconciliation (like Christ’s reconciliation) looks odd. That is, Paul commends himself to the Corinthians as his “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” also show “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Corinthians 6.4-6). There are those among the Corinthians who apparently argue that Paul’s string of afflictions are arguments against his ministry to reconciliation – perhaps just as though who argue that Easter joy makes Lenten repentance unnecessary. How can reconciliation look like this (they say)? Paul says that they actually demonstrate it. Paul did not in any simple sense seek out these afflictions – just as there are some who will not have to seek out Joel’s fasting and weeping and mourning: they already hunger or mourn. What Paul does do here is read his own afflictions (hardships, calamities, sleepless nights, hunger, and so forth) in the light of the Jesus Christ whose suffering and death are the way of reconciliation for us all. How does Paul do this?
Jesus’ teachings brings things to a point at the very center of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: “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” (Matthew 6.1). Jesus drives the point home with three examples of pious practices: give alms in secret (6.4), pray in your room behind a shut door (6.6), fast precisely by looking your best (6.17). The central practice here is praying. Indeed, Matthew’s Lord’s prayer (6.7-15) interrupts the sayings on almsgiving and fasting, as if understanding our praying is the secret to understanding what we should do with our money and our food. Clearly Jesus is not mandating that we only pray the Lord’s prayer behind closed doors – or that we always wash our faces instead of fasting (or receiving ashes), or somehow keep our almsgiving even from ourselves. Instead, what is essential is that this almsgiving and fasting are practices before God – practices like praying in which we call upon God, coram Deo (as an Augustine or Luther might say). So we must learn to pray as we fast and give alms, or endure afflictions and sleepless nights like Paul, or cry out to God for our adulteries and murders. No Lenten asceticism without praying. And no praying except, as Joel says, before the Lord who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”.