ASH WEDNESDAY FIRST READING: JOEL 2:12-18 RESPONSORIAL: PSALM 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 AND 17 SECOND READING: 2 CORINTHIANS 5:20-6:2 GOSPEL PASSAGE: MATTHEW 6:1-6, 16-18 OBJECTIVE STUDIES CONFIRM WHAT BELIEVERS ALREADY KNOW BY EXPERIENCE – THAT AN AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LORD IS TRANSFORMATIVE. THE WORLD IS A BETTER PLACE FOR THE MOTIVATED BELIEVERS WHO PARTICIPATE IN GOD’S GRACE AND MERCY BY STRIVING TO LIVE LIVES OF GENEROSITY, COMPASSION, AND HONESTY. EVEN AS WE GIVE THANKS TO GOD FOR THE GIFT OF FAITH AND ITS EFFECTS, WE KNOW ALL TOO WELL THAT BELIEVERS DO NOT CEASE TO BE HUMAN. LIKE ALL HUMAN BEINGS, WE ARE ALL TOO PRONE TO WITHDRAW INTO OUR NARROW SELFISH SELVES – TO BECOME DELUSIONAL IF NOT DISHONEST - AND TO PREFER CONTROL TO THE TRUTH. AND FOR BELIEVERS THERE ARE SPECIAL DANGERS, FOR WE MUST ADD HYPOCRISY TO THE LIST OF POSSIBLE OFFENSES WHEN WE FALL OUT OF RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.
Ash Wednesday in particular and Lent in general offer us an opportunity to master ourselves and our desires. Those ashes are a dose of reality – a reminder of our limits and our limited perspective. It’s curious then, that the readings for the day do not lead with an announcement of human depravity. Instead, the first note struck is one of profound hope – even as the prophecy of Joel summons the people to repentace, it proclaims the patience and gracious mercy of God. In fact this passage serves as a turning point in that book. Until this point, the book described the disaster that had befallen Judah. With this happy news of God’s mercy, the prophecy shifts decidedly towards a message of deliverance and vindication.
Psalm 51, a classic of prayer for times of repentance, likewise mixes lament with confidence in God. It certainly expresses sorrow for sin, but it does so in the confidence that God will deliver the petitioner from sin and its effects. In fact, the poetry deliberately mimic prayers of healing from illness and sees the mercy of God as a form of saving medicine.
Paul offers a different path to transformation. His Corinthian community needed much direction. It seems that the Corinthians we much disposed to go their own way – to hear the Gospel and then to redirect it to their own purposes. Paul, over several exchanges, must correct their preference for eloquence over authenticity, their divisions, and their misuse of God’s gifts for personal attention. In this passage, Paul uses a different approach. Instead of dwelling on their faults, he reminds them of the beauty of their calling. God has invited them into the divine work of reconciliation and salvation. God trusts them to represent the Lord to the world. While this approach may look like a compliment, it is just as powerful a challenge as any criticism. This wondrous truth of their place in God’s plan demands a response – and a rapid one at that – the time for that response is now!
The passage from Matthew offers us a portion of the great Sermon on the Mount. Jesus addresses three fundamental practices of Jewish faith and piety – almsgiving, prayer and fasting. His message is a bit odd. He does not challenge his disciples to increase their generosity or prayerfulness. Elsewhere in the Sermon, he tells them to intensify their righteousness and even that they must be the light to the world. Here, by contrast, the emphasis is on secrecy. Of course the explanation for the apparent contradiction is resolved when we understand that the Lord’s purpose is to refound these practices in their original purpose and setting. The disciples are to avoid the use of these pious practices to draw attention to themselves or serve any selfish purpose. They are to remember the truth that these practices are part of the covenental summons to right relationship with God and neighbor. The covenenant summons the believer to trust in God and embrace God’s will.
All of these readings point us in the same direction. They call us to an awareness of temptation and a commitment to repentance. They proclaim the gracious mercy of God and challenge us to respond in humble faith. They remind us of the renewal that is possible when faith is lived authentically. And perhaps on the most basic level, these readings demand that there be a clear corelation between our “inside” and our “outside.” If the unique temptation for believers is hypocrisy, then ashes are the medicine for the ailment.