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Introduction To The Scripture For Ash Wednesday - Year A B C
Joel 2:1-2,12-17; (alt - Isaiah 58:1-12) Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20(b) - 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ash Wednesday - Years A, B, and C


JOEL 2:1-2,12-17         With the warning sound of trumpets, the prophet
sounds the alarm  that the fearsome Day of the Lord is at hand. There is
still time to repent, though there may still be uncertainty that all the
fasting a sacrifices will be sufficient to dissuade Yahweh from punishing
wayward Israel. 


Alt - ISAIAH 58:1-12.    Countering the popular displays of repentance by
fasting, the prophet pleads that Israel(s returned exiles make justice
their true form of repentance.  Only then will the Lord restore their
prosperity and rebuild their ruined cities.


PSALM 51:1-17            As the sub-title indicates, this classic psalm of
repentance has traditionally been connected with David's adultery with
Bathsheba. Many scholars doubt this reference.  It could just as well be
read as the sincere expression of penitence by any sinner at any time.


2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b - 6:10   Paul quite rightly linked the Christian
message of reconciliation with God to the ministry of every Christian.  He
cited plainly the many difficulties he had experienced in carrying out this
ministry and the plethora of spiritual gifts he had been given to do it.


MATTHEW 6:1-6,16-21           From the collection of sayings of Jesus in
the Sermon on the Mount comes this insightful observation: The essence of
true penitential prayer is to be found in its secretive quality.  On the
other hand, making a public display for self-centred reasons is the essence
of hypocrisy. 


     Liturgical and popular practices related to Shrove Tuesday, Ash
     Wednesday and Lent developed relatively late in the Christian
     history.  Even in the Roman Catholic tradition, these special
     days of penitence and spiritual renewal have been widely
     celebrated only since the year 1000.  In recent years, many
     churches of the Protestant tradition, which rejected them almost
     totally at the time of the Reformation, have taken them up again.
     Liturgical practices of penitence, however, have a sound biblical
     background as the lessons assigned for Ash Wednesday clearly
     reveal.


JOEL 2:1-2,12-17   Joel is one of the unknown prophets of the OT.  Scholars
have noted a close resemblance of his writings with those of the better
known 8th century BCE prophet, Amos.  Unlike Amos, he was concerned with
worship of the temple, most likely the Second Temple of the post-exilic
period.  Many scholars believe that his work dates from a relatively
peaceful time during the late Persian period, ca.400 BCE, when the
leadership of Israel had, to a considerable extent, fallen to the high
priesthood.  Joel's great hope lay in the restoration of the nation to its
previously privileged role as the divinely chosen people.  He couched this
hope in strong apocalyptic terms recalling the declarations of earlier
prophets.

With the warning sound of trumpets, the prophet sounds the alarm that the
fearsome Day of the Lord is at hand.  There is still time to repent, though
there may still be uncertainty that all the fasting a sacrifices will be
sufficient to dissuade Yahweh from punishing wayward Israel.  The emphasis
on liturgical practices in vss.12,14 and 15-17 shows how deeply committed
Joel was to the traditional ways of showing that penitence was real.  On
the other hand, vs.13 contains the classic expression of the Israel's faith
in the divine qualities of grace, mercy, slowness to anger and abounding
steadfast love. 


ISAIAH 58:1-12   Countering the popular displays of repentance by fasting,
the prophet pleads that Israel's returned exiles make justice their true
form of repentance.  Only then will the Lord restore their prosperity and
rebuild their ruined cities.

In vss.1-5, after sounding a trumpet (*shofar*) to get the people's
attention, the prophet condemns in the most adamant terms the proffered
symbols of repentance.  Fasting in particular receives his vituperative
censure.  Coupled with this, he warns the people that this will not get
Yahweh's attention.

Beginning with vs.6, he then goes on to delineate the kind of repentance
Yahweh seeks: social justice for the oppressed, the homeless and the poor.
Only this will receive Yahweh's blessing and result in Yahweh's gifts of
prosperity thus enabling them to rebuild their ruined cities.

The historical allusions in this passage point to the decades immediately
following the return of the exiles from Babylon.  Impoverished and
dispirited, they failed to recognize that true repentance had to
implemented by a sharing of limited resources.  This could be read as a
powerful message for our own time when globalization has created a still
wider gap between rich and poor.  Times like these call for an even greater
commitment to social justice, not only within one nation but throughout the
global village.


PSALM 51:1-17   As the sub-title indicates, this classic psalm of
repentance has traditionally been connected with David's adultery with
Bathsheba.  Many scholars doubt this reference, yet it finds persistent
expression in many pulpits.  The actual historical incident behind the
psalm, if any, remains unknown.  The final two verses omitted from this
reading suggest a post-exilic date when ritual sacrifices would be offered
in the restored temple in Jerusalem.  The earlier verses could just as well
be read as the sincere expression of penitence by any sinner at any time.

The prayer of the sincere penitent might well find expression in the words. 
Indeed, one can presume that many a despondent soul has found them helpful
in saying what one's own words cannot say.  They open the penitent heart to
God.

Many have found the words of vs.5 very troublesome.  The KJV appear to
shift blame for one's evil behaviour on to one's parents, grandparents and
beyond.  This may be in keeping with the OT tradition voiced in Exodus 20:5
where "the iniquity of the fathers "is visited upon the children unto the
third and fourth generation of them that hate (Yahweh)."  (See also Exodus
34:6-8; Numbers 14:17-19; Deuteronomy 5:8-10)  While modern psychology may
recognize that behaviour often has roots in family systems of long
standing, that is not the import of more recent translations of the text.
The NRSV wording, "I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived
me," presents what may be a more radical view.  We are all sinners
alienated from God and never were anything else.

Many sins remain quite unknown to the sinner.  It takes a deep examination
of the soul to recognize that some things we do can never be sanctioned by
God, although never beyond sanctification.  A clean heart and a right
spirit do come from an examination of one's actual relationship with God
and acceptance of divine forgiveness.  It results from the work of the Holy
Spirit within (vss. 10-11) and brings more than joy to the forgiven sinner.
One remains a sinner, but now as a forgiven sinner one gains a mission. 
Not only do the sinner's ways change, but one becomes a messenger of God's
grace for others. 

Perhaps more than any other institution in the past century, Alcoholics
Anonymous has fulfilled this mission in North American society through its
twelve step program.  Anyone who has shared in this mission even to a minor
extent knows how sacrificial it can be.  Vs.17 truly expresses the reward
of the acceptable sacrifice.  Was this not also what voiced in Romans
12:1-2 and again in the next passage assigned for Ash Wednesday?


2 CORINTHIANS 5:20b - 6:10   Paul quite rightly linked the Christian
message of reconciliation with God to the ministry of every Christian.  He
cited plainly the many difficulties he had experienced in carrying out this
ministry and the plethora of spiritual gifts he had been given to do it.

Paul's ministry began when he met the risen Christ on the Damascus Road. 
We do not know the exact nature of the psychic experience of the encounter,
but we do know what followed: a life totally dedicated to bringing the
gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike.  Wherever he went, he became the perfect
example of an ambassador for Christ.

This passage deals with the challenges of such a ministry.  The first step
is to be reconciled to God oneself.  That took a considerable length of
time.  It is not possible to discover his exact movements in those early
years because the narrative of Acts 9:26-30 do not completely correspond to
his own account in Galatians 1:17.  In his Corinthians letters, Paul did
make a strong case for the severity of his trials as an apostle. In 2 Cor.
6:4-5 he quickly summarizes some of these, but vss.6-10 balances them with
an even longer list of the gifts he had been given to overcome them.

One thinks immediately of 20th century heroes of faith such as Martin
Luther King and Nelson Mandela whose lives similarly exemplified what Paul
saw as being an ambassador for Christ.  It is not the worthiness of
character or the depths of one's penitence, but the spiritual gifts
provided by the Holy Spirit that gives such men and women the power to be
who they are.  Moral authority springs from encountering Christ in what was
for Paul and countless others since a life-changing experience that enabled
them to change the history of the their own and subsequent times.


MATTHEW 6:1-6,16-21   From the collection of sayings of Jesus in the Sermon
on the Mount comes this insightful observation: The essence of true
penitential prayer is to be found in its secretive quality.  On the other
hand, making a public display for self-centred reasons is the essence of
hypocrisy. 

Few of us have a memorable skill in prayer.  Even those who practice
silent, contemplative prayer often have difficulty concentrating for any
length of time.  The human mind is so easily distracted by what is
happening around us.  For this reason, the counsel Jesus gave in this
excerpt could be useful to everyone who sincerely desires to experience the
presence of God in prayer.  He himself took time apart for personal
spiritual renewal in prayer.

Jesus was saying that ostentatious piety, expressed either in the
mellifluous words of prayer or the giving of substantial gifts to the poor,
does not affect one's spiritual health.  Those who seek to do this for
personal aggrandizement receive just that kind of reward.  In the Hebrew
language there was no word for what we call "alms."  In that tradition,
however, generosity to the poor was both required and praised (e.g. Deut.
15:11; Job 29:11-16).  In the Sermon on the Mount, piety and almsgiving are
synonymous.  Paul urged his communities to make special efforts to remember
the poor.  Without question, this must be one aspect of a sincere response
to God, not the chief means of obtaining such a relationship. 

In the second part of this reading, Jesus similarly discredited
ostentatious fasting, although that too had been an ancient tradition in
Israel.  The great liturgical fast occurred on the Day of Atonement.  It
could be undertaken on other occasions too: in personal mourning,
intercession or petition for Yahweh's aid, or as a national act in the face
of some calamity.  Total abstinence from food indicated absolute dependence
on and submission to Yahweh.  As we saw in the reading from Isaiah 58, the
prophetic view held that whatever moral value fasting might have should
enhanced by compassion for the poor and continual social justice. 

It would appear that in Jesus time, despite there being a strong connection
between fasting and prayer, the practice had become something of a fetish
for the publicly pious.  Did Jesus direct the main thrust of this passage
at the Pharisees in particular?  Their meticulous attention to details of
the law would have made them a prime target for his sarcasm.  He directed
his followers to do their fasting in private and with certain aspects of
rejoicing.  Unlike John the Baptist and the Pharisees, he did not urge them
to be too strict about it.  Primarily, he recognized it as a spiritual
discipline. 

Perhaps it was for this reason that the early church adopted the practice,
especially in preparation for baptism.  By the late 4th century, Cyril of
Jerusalem was counselling a forty day pre-baptismal fast prior to Easter,
the traditional time for baptizing new catechumens.  By the 5th century it
had become the subject of discussion as having an apostolic origin. 
Rightly or wrongly, this was the probable origin of the later Lenten fast.
It is not impossible that the general practice of a Lenten fast made a
spiritual virtue of a real necessity.  During the Dark Ages food production
had fallen to such a low level as to force the reduction of food
consumption during the late winter and early spring.  The word Lent itself
is no more than a Germanic word for spring  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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