I am writing this commentary only a few days before Christmas. I am at the tail-end and apex of Advent, excitedly waiting for Christ and hope to come, yet, amid this anticipation, the reality of Ash Wednesday—the truth of my finitude, the fact that there is mass suffering all around us, and the relentless actuality that injustice plagues creation—confronts me. In other words, writing this piece isn’t exactly what I planned to do the week of Christmas. However, deadlines are also a reality, so I will do my best to engage this text from the context of Ash Wednesday. Before I do, however, I offer here a quick reminder regarding the significance of Ash Wednesday for the Christian Church.
Ash Wednesday ushers in the season of Lent, and the Ash Wednesday service consists of a formulated liturgy which culminates in the sprinkling of ash upon the congregation’s heads. As ashes are applied to the foreheads of the participants, the priest, elder, or the minister presiding forms a cross and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ashes in the Christian tradition represent finitude and repentance; thus, the entire ceremony functions to remind Christians that the earth will one day pass away, that we are sinners, and that we are only here for a short time. The most hopeful aspect of Lent and the spreading of the ash ceremony, I believe, is the active, communal recollection that our God is a merciful god, and that when we repent forgiveness will come. This brings me to our text in question.
Verses 1-2 of Joel chapter 2 give the reader a grim description of the events that will coincide with the Day of the Lord—a day in the Hebrew bible understood as a day of judgement in which God brings justice to a world plagued by inequity. It forecasts the military conquest of Jerusalem by a powerful army that can take the form of numerous kinds of warcraft; later, we find out that this is an army of locusts (2:25). God here is bringing the same judgement God used against Egypt to free the Hebrews on Jerusalem herself. Thus, the enemy at the gate in this case, is not human but the judgement of God which Jerusalem has sown with its unfaithfulness. Nature itself has turned its back on Israel because in this case they deserve judgement. In other words, this is not an “othering” text—the writer’s intent is not to villainize or alienate a foreign, invading people, but to illustrate the potential consequences of sin.
The second part of our text is a response to God’s judgement. Mainly, Israel asks for mercy, and for another chance to act faithfully. Of note, is that the text calls all generations— “even infants at the breast” (v.16)—to lift their voices to God, and to plea for forgiveness. Often, we think of sin in discrete terms, but this text illumines the truth: sin is a communal event; and, therefore, so is repentance. The section then ends with a haunting question, “Where is God?” For it seems as if God has abandoned Israel in God’s act of judgement.
God eventually responds to Israel’s plea for forgiveness in the following verses. However, the lectionary text doesn’t allow us the same resolution. On Ash Wednesday, we are left with only a plea for forgiveness, the feeling of divine absence, and the weight of our own culpability. The lectionary asks us to respond to this feeling of absence and contrition without guarantee of redemption; it leaves us precariously vulnerable, and, ultimately, it reminds us that we are finite, fallible, and fragile. Ash Wednesday is about this very sentiment. It’s about reflecting on how we could have not been, and how eventually we will not be. Furthermore, it’s a reminder that God forgives us out of love, not from necessity, nor from coercion. God is not required to forgive God’s people.
So, how might we respond to this non-responsive God, the fragility of life as revealed in these passages, and the judgement that the people of God are facing because of their unfaithfulness?
For myself, the passage leads me to confession, to ponder the way I’ve shown forgiveness to others, and toward a sublime thankfulness. It makes me first contrite for my own selfish acts and participation in cycles of injustice in the forms of racism, sexism, and capitalism. It makes me reflect on those misgivings not in a way that I feel to be self-destructive or unhelpful, but in ways that are salubrious and introspective. Why did I not condemn the racist joke my co-worker told yesterday? How has stereotypes of women made me interact with them differently and unfairly? And what about my role in our economy. In what ways have I transgressed the rights of others for the sake of convenience and cheap goods? For all my short comings, I am contrite, and desire forgiveness from God and those I transgressed.
Likewise, others need forgiveness. How have I shown grace to those who do wrong to me or to others? One can show grace without lying down and letting others commit acts of violence against one’s self or others. But what does that balance look like?
Last, Ash Wednesday and the text of Joel remind me of how incredible it is to be anything at all. I often tell people that when I experience the Divine most poignantly, it is always via a feeling of profound thankfulness. Some days, I wake up, or as I go to sleep, thinking about how wonderful it is to be alive; how I could have never been born, or died in an accident long ago. I think about how amazing it is that I get to make love, feel the breeze of a warm summer night on my face, and experience intimacy with my friends and pets. These things, as mundane as they may seem, is where I experience God most intensely; for it is in these moments that I become hyper-aware of my material embodiment, and the fact that one day I will no longer experience embodiment as I do now.
Understanding and reflecting on the words, “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” make moments of life and God’s role in that life more potent. It hones reality and the experience of life into a sharper image. Thus, while Ash Wednesday and the text of Joel we engage this week do not highlight the most optimistic aspects of our faith, they do, in an important way, contribute to the goodness of our life and faith.