Old Testament Lectionary Feb 18th Ash Wednesday Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

An extra for you this week for the occasion of Ash Wednesday. I’ve chose to comment on the Joel passage as I like it better!

One of my big beefs with the way in which we so often use the OT is about reading it as though the only purpose it had was to prophesy stuff about Jesus, or to provide spiritualised insights for 21st century Christians. This passage reminds us that these words were first addressed to real people, with a real relationship with God, but in a very different time and culture. People with a real and pressing crisis to face. The first rule of hermeneutics, or interpreting Scripture, is that

‘a passage can’t mean anything which the original writers didn’t mean the original readers to understand by it’.

So what was going on back in Joel’s day? We know from the context that the nation had been subject to a massive attack by locusts. If you’ve seen this happening on David Attenborough-type programmes you’ll know the devastation which these little creatures can cause, but what we don’t often realise is that it is much more serious than that. All the crops being stripped doesn’t just mean no food: it also means no seed to plant for next year. This isn’t just a tricky situation for a while: it could literally mean the death of the nation. What are people to do?

File:Australian Plague Locusts.jpg

The prophet knows very well what they should do: they should repent. He clearly sees this devastating plague as a divine punishment, or at the very least a removal of divine protection. So in the strongest terms, this book is a call to deep, heart-rending repentance, at a national level.

Nowadays, of course, we don’t really have big disasters like that, at least not in the developed world. If we did get attacked by locusts we’d probably spray them with something or other and it would all be OK. And the idea that a prophet could get the nation to do anything at all is laughable.

So we do our repentance a bit differently. It’s all about me and God, my bad temper, the fact that I let out a rude word when I hit my finger with a hammer, and those days I missed reading my morning Bible passage. Not earth-shattering sins, but it’s good to have a little clean out once in a while, isn’t it, and Lent seems a good time to do it and to try harder to be nice.

I can’t help but contrast the way we think of Lent with the gut-wrenching desperation of Joel, crying out to God for their very survival. I can’t remember the last time I heard a priest weeping with penitence during public worship, or such a commitment to intercession that it even takes precedence over food and sex. I wonder whether the personalised and individualised observance of Lent which is the stock-in-trade of the C of E is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs while the ship of state that is contemporary Britain is sinking before our very eyes.

OT Lectionary Ash Wednesday March 5th Isaiah 581-12

Why ‘ashes’?

On Ash Wednesday in many churches around the world Christians will have ashes placed on their heads as they enter into the season of Lent. But why ashes? What do they symbolise?

It is common knowledge that in the OT ashes (along with sackcloth and sometimes dust) were used when in some way or another the chips were down. The first reference like this is to Tamar in 2 Samuel 19 who, having been raped by Amnon, tears her ornate robes and puts ashes on her head. But even before this Abraham acknowledges his unworthiness to intercede to God in Gen 18. There are several other references throughout the OT: is it possible to tease out the symbolism and understand more clearly what we are saying by what we do on Ash Wednesday?

File:US Navy 080206-N-7869M-057 Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives the sacramental ashes during an Ash Wednesday celebration.jpg

The first reference is to mortality. To put it bluntly, that’s how we’re all going to end up. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ says the minister as ashes are administered, just as God spoke to the fallen Adam and Eve. Don’t get any ideas above your station, because at the end of the day you’re going to end up the same as everybody else. The Christian gospel, of course, tells us that this isn’t actually the last word, but it never does any harm not to think more highly of ourselves then we ought, and to remember that without the breath of God in us we’re nothing at all.

Tied in with this is the motif of poverty. Hannah recognises in her outpouring of praise in 1 Samuel 2 that the ash-heap is the place where the needy find themselves, among the spent residue of life that has no further use or purpose. God alone is able to raise people from the ashes and restore them, as Job was to discover when God did just that, taking him from the ashes where he sat and giving back to him much of what had been taken from him. Isaiah echoes this in chapter 61, where the ashes of poverty and devastation ashes will be replaced by a crown of beauty, just as the oil of joy will replace mourning, our third symbol. Mordecai, for example, in Esther 4, learns of the edict that all the Jews are to be annihilated, and shows his deep distress and sorrow by tearing his clothes and covering himself with sackcloth and ashes, a common motif in times of anguish.

Sometimes the anguish which calls for ashes comes from what others have done, but our fourth symbol is about distress at what we have done ourselves, when ashes become a sign of penitence. It seems strange to us to show that we’re sorry by putting ash on our heads, but maybe there’s a link to the other motifs: we’re desperately upset because of who we are and/or what we’ve done; we recognise that it has made us poor and useless, and it reminds us that try as we might to live a good life we’re only human and in the end death will get the better of us.

So with all this richness of meaning we can understand a bit more clearly why Isaiah has such a down on insincere penitence. ‘Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?’ he asks, ‘for lying on sackcloth and ashes’ whilst continuing in the very sins for which we evidently have not an ounce of sorrow or penitence, and which we only pretend to be upset about (58:5). Real penitence requires all that ashes symbolise, and not just the ashes themselves. If our sin doesn’t get to us that much, there’s not a lot of point in using ashes as an empty ceremony.