Monday, February 12, 2018

Monday Thoughts on the Readings for Ash Wednesday (February 14th) 2018

We are quickly approaching Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.  Ash Wednesday is a day where we remember that we are creatures who will eventually return to the dust, but we worship the Lord who created us and can raise us from the dust.  It is a day for confession and repentance as well as absolution.  The sign of the cross on our foreheads both reminds us of our sin and proclaims the source of our reconciliation and salvation.

This year, the community gathers in the shadows of the deaths of two congregation members.  Their respective funerals will take place in the days after Ash Wednesday.  What does this day proclaim in the midst of our grief and sadness?

As always, I invite you to leave your thoughts, comments, and questions below.  You can see my thoughts underneath each reading, and I will respond to all posts in the comments as well.

Joel 2:1 - 2, 12 - 17

1Blow 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—
2a 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.
12Yet even now, says the Lord,
  return to me with all your heart,
 with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
  13rend 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.
14Who 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?
15Blow the trumpet in Zion;
  sanctify a fast;
 call a solemn assembly;
  16gather 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.
17Between 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?’ ”

Do we fear “the day of the Lord?”  Is this something we wish to delay as long as possible, or is this something we wish would arrive as soon as possible?  Here, in Joel, it seems like it is something to be feared.  Even those who are usually exempt from mass community gatherings (seniors, young children, and newlyweds) are required to come and plead for the Lord’s mercy.  There is a call for confession and repentance.  It is very similar to the themes of Ash Wednesday.  The difference is that the Church typically views “the day of the Lord” as something to celebrate, for it is the day the Lord will return to Earth, the Kingdom of God will fully arrive, and we will rise from our graves to greet the new age.

Psalm 51:1 - 17

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51 reads like a community proclamation at the gathering called for in Joel 2.  It also holds the words of the popular liturgical song “Create in Me.”  How confident are we in the request for the Lord to not cast us aside?  It’s another case of wondering whether we view “the day of the Lord” with dread or delight.

2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10

20bWe entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6:1As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For 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! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

This year, it seems like the important part of the 2 Corinthians passage is the first four verses, ending with “now is the day of salvation!”  Paul calls for the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God.”  This reconciliation does not come from us; it comes through the death and resurrection of Christ.  This is the Good News of Ash Wednesday (and of the upcoming funerals): it is Jesus who reconciles us to the Triune God.  “It’s out of our hands; we can’t stop what (God has) begun.”  (If you are familiar with the song "Looking Through Your Eyes" by LeAnn Rimes.)  We can confess and repent, asking the Lord to sustain us in our efforts.  But this is truly the Lord’s work, and the Lord is at work in the world and in the sacraments of the Church.

Mark 6:1 - 6, 16 - 21

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“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.
  2“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. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
  5“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. 6But 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.
  16“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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.
  19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6 seems to speak against what we are doing on Ash Wednesday.  Pray in secret (but we are gathered as a community).  Cover yourself in oil as though you are being honored (but we are marking ourselves with ashes, the symbol of mourning).  It is definitely an odd choice for this night…and this year, I don’t think I want to dive into that oddity.

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