This is the beginning of the Church’s 40 days of Lent which is a preparation for Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. The liturgy starts with fasting, a practice widespread in world religions. For the Jews at that time wearing ‘sackcloth’ (a rough material) and sprinkling oneself with ashes were a sign of mourning and this was extended to ‘mourning’ for sins. We today have only a symbolic amount of ashes pressed on the forehead, with the reminder that we all are to die – ‘return to dust’. This is not meant to depress us, rather to focus our minds on what is lasting: God’s love and his Kingdom.
This reading has an example of one kind of Jewish fast – the whole community together – to make their prayer more intense. Our Lent also has a community aspect: we fasting in company with all the church. Community is also shown by donations for food for the hungry of the world who ‘fast’ daily in their deprivation.
Little is known about the prophet Joel, and even his dates are uncertain, although there are indications of writing after the return from the Babylonian Exile. The situation behind today’s selection was a time of drought and a plague of locusts, which combined to destroy crops needed for survival.
At that time, people understood such trials and suffering as sent from God. Jesus’ teaching will change this to understanding that no matter what happens, God is ‘with us’ in all our problems. When disasters occurred, the prophets considered them a sign of need for repentance and returning to God. Since in most lives, there is some ‘sinfulness’ or falling away of trust in God, Lent asks to look at our daily lives and our communities and see what needs reform.
Joel’s words of God’s compassion and always being there for us when we turn to him are echoed in many parts of the Old Testament, and call for absolute trust in God’s love and care for us. Notice, however, that Joel stresses it is God’s decision: We do not fast or pray to force his hand, but to show our willingness to wait on God’s will.
Next comes a dramatic call for the total community to come together in their emergency situation – even those usually excused from public worship. The trumpet was used in the temple ceremonies, and could be taken out into the city to call for prayer. Tearing one’s garment was an outer symbol of something deeply felt, but Joel anticipates the Gospel theme that it is the inward intent which God wants.
Psalm 50/51:3-6, 12-14, 17
This is one of the ‘penitential’ psalms, a confident prayer of one who recognizes his sin, but trusts in God for forgiveness and the power to reform. It suggests the spirit of Lent, both seeing our needs and failings and also the confidence that we can be changed by relying on God.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6-2
St Paul has compared ministers to ‘stewards’ and with a similar meaning of speaking in behalf of God, he speaks as an ‘ambassador’. The rest of the reading stresses the need for reconciliation, knowing of further difficulties among the Christians of Corinth to whom he had previously written. The liturgy takes it as applying to all of us who are beginning our Lenten season.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
This is a selection from Matthew’s long teaching of Jesus, generally called ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’ Here Jesus picks up the three good works called for in the Old Testament – alms or help to others, prayer and fasting. These are also for Christians three activities for Lent. All these things, good in themselves, can easily lead those who practice them to take pride in what they do and look for recognition from others. What counts is the spirit in which the acts were performed – self-effacing, focusing on God, and the needs of other people.
The word ‘hypocrite’ meant actors in a play, and thus fits those who want to make a public performance of their virtues. Joel called for a trumpet, but here Jesus’ warns against a different use – making a parade, as it were, of going out to give alms. There is no record of people at that time using trumpets in such a way, so it may be one of Jesus’ exaggerations to make the point: don’t call attention to your ‘good deeds’. In our times, many who make large donations receive public recognition. When you act with such motives, your ‘reward’ is the publicity and the people’s admiration you sought and you cannot expect God to be impressed with something not truly offered to him. The words used of the hypocrite are based on a Greek word for a business transaction, and mean ‘paid in full’ – the reward from others is all they deserve. (‘Reward’ used of God, John P. Meier points, means not something we have earned, but a free gift from God.) In another vivid (and impossible) comparison of hiding the good done by the ‘right hand’ from the left, we are told that beyond public praise, we should not even ‘pat ourselves on the back’ by taking inward satisfaction of how good we have been.
Similarly with prayer: it should one-to-one communication with God, not calling other’s attention to what one is doing. R. T. France in his commentary on Matthew says this does not forbid public praying together, but refers to our times of individual prayer. Fasting can cause us some discomfort which could be emphasized by how one looks and behaves. Instead, Jesus’ tells us to dress and act as normal. This would, like the prayer described here, be fasting done as a private act – not as part of a community as in Joel.
David Bartlett has written: ‘There is some irony in the fact that in many Christian churches we usually read this text on Ash Wednesday morning, and then undergo the imposition of ashes so that our piety can be entirely visible, if puzzling, to our friends and fellow workers…. of course, the deepest repentance comes from the heart, and bears fruits of righteousness.’ The intent of all Lenten practices is inward change, drawing closer and closer to God, who paradoxically is always present to us – whether or not we make ourselves present to God. A Lord who Joel tells us is ‘all tenderness and compassion, rich in graciousness and forgiveness.’