Reading Ramblings – Ash Wednesday, 2022

Date: Ash Wednesday – March 2, 2022

Readings: Joel 2:12-19; Psalm 51:1-13(14-19); 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Context: The season of Lent begins, a season of repentance and remorse, self-examination and sincerity. This undertaking is not arbitrary. It functions within a larger context of the linear nature of history, a history extending from Creation, through the Fall, and to a Day of the Lord which will mean judgment as well as grace. Repentance is the acknowledgement that if not for God’s Son incarnating at a fixed point in our linear history, judgment would be our rightful due. But in Christ – and particularly his suffering and death – our sentence of death is laid upon him. So we examine and repent but not in uncertainty, but rather in the assurance that our faith in Christ and reliance on his perfection rather than our own is what makes all the difference in our linear history that ends with the Day of the Lord and continues beyond history into eternity. Such contemplation is indeed joyful, and therefore we should comport ourselves as those who are assured of forgiveness in Christ and already recipients of the mercy of God the Father.

Joel 2:12-19 – This is a powerful passage, often quoted only partially. Small wonder the latter verses would receive more attention, decidedly more positive and hopeful than the bulk of the early chapter. Yet God’s grace is only fully appreciated when one considers the alternative – the destructive judgment we are deserving of in our sinfulness and selfishness. Even our repentance is sullied with sin and self-preservation, incomplete at best. It is not the quality of our repentance but rather than magnanimous nature of God the Father that spares us. Our haphazard contrition is hardly admirable, but barely appropriate. The hero of this scene is not the repentant sinner but the merciful Creator who bestows on his creation his continued good gifts day after day – grain and wine and new oil, necessities for day to day life to be sure, but also representative of God’s Sacramental, saving gifts of bread and wine in Holy Eucharist and oil which anoints us as the Father’s wayward but reconciled children. Ponder the entire chapter. Judgment is coming. It will be truly horrendous – more horrendous than the most barbarous of human behavior because it is true and right and necessary and therefore holy. Against the backdrop of war this week in Ukraine, such verses take on a brutal reality. Our rationality has not overcome our sinful nature, and judgment is coming for those who flaunt the Lord’s wisdom in favor of their own.

Psalm 51:1-13(14-19) – The initial 13 verses are the frank personal inventory of a sinful person. His sin is only too obvious, too glaring to overlook or ignore. Yet the speaker is constantly hopeful. His sin can be washed away. His brokenness can be knit back together. His sin is ultimately first and foremost against God, and yet it is this God who can remove the stains of that sin eternally. What beautiful hope intertwined with such pained contrition and confession! The latter verses emphasize the sinner’s response to the grace and forgiveness of God. What a joy and privilege to declare not just God’s greatness but his goodness and mercy to others! In our culture burdened by hopelessness and despair in not measuring up against the laws of science and technology as well as influencers and celebrities, what a joy to be able to speak of peace, of joy, of assurance that we are infinitely valued! How incredible to assert that no less than the eternal, divine Son of God himself spilled his incarnate blood on our behalf! What greater worth could ever be bestowed upon us or earned by us?!

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 – Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is full of mixed emotions. Sharings of his sufferings, references to chastisement, calls to forgiveness and to acceptance of his ministry among them and since them. Here, he calls the Corinthians to reconciliation to God himself. This is a serious matter and Paul feels at least some of the church in Corinth is at risk from slipping away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ they first heard and received from Paul, back into unbelief and apostasy. Their repentance is to be real and true and present, not something of the past lightly held and so easily discarded. In order to make sure Paul is not an obstacle to this he has endured many things, suffered many things, surrendered many things. By the world’s standards he would amount to a failure, hardly the victorious, hardly the celebrity, hardly the success. But God’s standards are not the world’s. And in ways that are no doubt as baffling to Paul as to the Corinthians as to us, the very suffering and death of Christ ensure immeasurable victory and reconciliation to those who will receive it. It is possible to reject confession and the forgiveness that comes from it. To do so because of personal pride and worldly standards risks an eternal loss and infinitely greater riches.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – The sermon on the mount started in chapter 5 continues here. Jesus instructs his disciples on how they are to carry out their ministry and lives. They are to live in contrast to the ostensibly holy people of the day, eschewing their public hallmarks and to seek satisfaction not in praise received from others but in the peace and promise of God himself. What they do they are to do in joyful obedience to their heavenly Father. As He richly blesses them they are to be a blessing to others, seeking no other reward than the approval of their heavenly Father. Likewise when they engage in fasting they are not to be obvious about it, so that everyone might realize they are fasting and applaud their spirituality. Rather, they are to act as though they are not hungry, seeking not the praise of others but the blessings of the fasting itself in their spirits.

This may lead us to consider receiving the ashes of Ash Wednesday as somehow inappropriate. And perhaps it is. Certainly being outwardly in mourning is Biblical (consider the decrees of the King of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). But if the ashes become for us a source of pride, a means of judging those around us as either as spiritual or religious as ourselves, then we’d be better off skipping the imposition and doing a bit more meditation and prayer on the meaning and nature of repentance. The ashes are not a mark of pride in something we’ve done, like attend Ash Wednesday service. They are rather a reminder of who and what we are, regardless of how the world sees and judges us. We are sinners, and as such of our own merit we are headed towards the grave and dust and ashes, to be rightly forgotten. But by the grace of God the Father in Jesus Christ, who suffered in our behalf on the cross – the shape of the ashes on our forehead – our future is most assuredly different! Not because of our pious posturing or even our heartfelt regret, but entirely because of Jesus himself, and because of the faith instilled in us by God the Holy Spirit. There is no part to claim in all of this for ourselves. Only glory and honor to be given to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have accomplished our salvation against the raging and plotting of Satan and our own, blackened hearts!

One Response to “Reading Ramblings – Ash Wednesday, 2022”

  1. Dennis Jones Says:

    Thanks PN

    Sent from my iPhone


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