Ashes and Anticipation: A Lenten Urgency

Ash Wednesday

I’m still mulling over the Joel text from Ash Wednesday. It’s permeating and somehow bringing to the surface much of what I’m feeling this Lenten season so far.

“Blow 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—
a 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.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend 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.
Who 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?”

As I understand the context the darkness and gloom refers to the locusts that are plaguing the land. Apparently this is truly a national crisis, I wonder, if akin to hurricanes and tornadoes we experience in different parts of this country. (Also, random but fascinating in a Science Guy kind of way, I recently learned from my saavy college students that locusts are grasshoppers that have swarmed. I feel like there’s something there to mull over, too.) But, darkness and gloom are relateable at so many levels, and the way to face it is spoken by the prophet:

The book of Joel models a faithful response to uncertainty, fear, and chaos all around, of gathering as a community for worship, prayer, fasting, and turning with our whole heart to the LORD. God has been a stronghold and a fortress in the past. Who knows? God may again turn, relent, and deliver!

To “return” in Hebrew means literally to “turn” around, to change one’s direction by halting the walk away from God and beginning the walk toward God. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the site of deliberation and commitment. Turning to God with one’s whole heart therefore involves changing one’s mind, reconsidering one’s actions, and orienting oneself entirely toward God. The command, “tear your hearts, not your clothing” (2:12), suggests a sudden shift of priorities in response to dire circumstances. We might reflect upon what turning to God would mean for individual lives and the whole congregation in the present context.

Esther Menn at Working Preacher

I feel an urgency in these words. Distinct, for some reason, from past Ash Wednesdays and Lents. A sense of as the preacher said Wednesday night last week, “The Titanic is going down. You’re not going to be rearranging the deck chairs.” The urgency feels parallel to Advent, which I find really compelling, but there’s something else, a kind of desperation, a kind of “this is the time,” and a feeling of it’s-now-or-never.

I love the following:

What possible connection could all of this lurid talk of locusts and gloom and armies have with our quiet kneeling to receive our sticky crosses? More than we think at first glance, I think. My too often half-hearted attempt to “get with the program” of the call of Christ is based on this cataclysmic appearance of the Holy One in our midst. Do not be fooled by that coming as the child thing; the child was heralded by armies of angels, you remember, feted by some kings, feared to the point of genocide by another. Because we have sweetened our Christmas celebrations with cider and goo, we have hidden all this earthly upheaval under a soft blanket of tinsel and presents. But YHWH has come, we claim. So now on Ash Wednesday this is the YHWH we face, the armied YHWH, the gloomy, cloudy, awesome (in the full meaning of that grand word) YHWH. As we kneel at the altar, it is that YHWH who bids us kneel.

We altar kneelers can now breathe a deep sigh of grateful relief; the last word of YHWH is never gloom and darkness and the tramp of armies. When the Israelites wanted to encapsulate their belief in the deep love of their God, they returned again and again to the wonderful words YHWH uttered to Moses on the sacred mountain in Exodus 34:6. This YHWH always opens the divine heart to those whose heart opens to YHWH. This is true because YHWH is “gracious.” The Hebrew word includes within its basic meaning “beauty;” this “favor” of YHWH toward Israel is itself beautiful. And YHWH is “compassionate.” This extraordinary word is based on the noun “womb.” As the authors tried to capture the amazing compassion of their God, they turned to a woman’s womb and her deep connection to her unborn child. (All the more reason, by the way, not to limit metaphors of God to masculine ones.) And YHWH “brims with unbreakable love.” The final word is almost impossible to translate. Chesed means more than the NRSV’s “steadfast love;” so I translate “unbreakable love” in the attempt to suggest the basic nature of this divine love, its eternal quality, its inability to be shattered or turned off.

-John C. Holbert at Patheos

I love the image of the womb again. The reminder that the darkness and gloom that approach are not without a response from God. And the response is that of incredible compassion, the kind that wraps itself around an underserving creature that is hidden and unknown, swimming in those dark amniotic waters. Of course, it’s all the more poignant for me as I sit pretty much bursting at the seams with this little sea monkey in me. Except that I wouldn’t always call the feeling I have for the baby “compassion.” Maybe tolerance. Maybe awe. Unfortunately annoyance, even. Most certainly, curiosity. And on my better days, gratitude. But perhaps the compassion is rooted in my body simply doing what is necessary to grow and protect this little one. My body suffering with Andover for this little one. I wonder if that’s the compassion God has towards us – natural and innate.

Whether darkness or gloom, ashes or storms, God’s faithfulness and compassion are present. And ready. That’s what we have to lean on this Lent, and we can experience it all the more as we follow Joel’s imperative to return to God. Returning is no doubt about turning around but not simply for our working towards our own salvation, but to see God working out our salvation through grace:

A song by gospel artist Paul Morton says: “I feel the rain. Can anybody out there feel the rain? It’s raining. It’s raining.” When people of God turn to God and are directed by God, the grace of God showers our lives. And, if the grace of God is with us, that’s all that we need. That’s why the elders used to say: “It was grace that woke me up this morning. It was grace that clothed me in my right mind. It was grace that started me on my way. And it is grace that will lead me on.” I believe somebody called that type of grace amazing. Lord, let it rain!

From the African American Lectionary

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