Homily for Ash Wednesday, March 6th, 2019 ©:
The individual and the community are urged to return to God through conversion and repentance. That message becomes very clear in today’s readings.
First, the psalm reading is the famous lament of Psalm 51. It is believed that King David wrote that psalm after committing adultery with a married woman and then arranging for her husband’s murder, when he cannot cover up her pregnancy by him (David). The psalmist prays to God and asks God to deliver him from sin. This offender relies exclusively on God’s fidelity and graciousness. He also admits that his guilt and suffering are deserved and self-inflicted. But the psalmist wants more. He prays for removal of sin but he also asks for a state of nearness to God Himself. It is a joyful state that this author wants God to renew for him. He promises that he will speak from personal experience to other estranged sinners about God’s gracious forgiveness. He will speak this to all people who are banished from God’s presence.
The first reading from the prophet Joel encourages the Israelite community to return to God. “Even now…return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;…”(Joel 2:12). The prophet Joel urges the Israelites to return “even now” because “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment”(Joel 2:13). The verses in this Old Testament reading suggest an immediate response to the coming day of the Lord. The prophet urges the entire community to lament her sinfulness. “Even now” suggests that God will consider an action other than destruction and gloom. “Even now” offers hope to the sinful Israelite community. God is calling Israelites to return to Him with their entire being. Participation in a communal liturgy of lament for their sins is encouraged to express the community’s collective and universal commitment to God. God might yet relent. Because God might yet relent from punishing the Israelites, The prophet Joel’s call to the Israelites to lament their sins is urgent. This call includes everyone. This is a call to universal, communal repentance. Everyone is required to repent: children, infants, brides, and bridegrooms and others. This is urgent for the Israelite community and it is urgent for the individual sinner, represented in the psalm.
Yet, Jesus tells us to perform religious acts to honor God, not themselves. Jesus criticizes pious self-display. Jesus does not condemn the pious act itself. Jesus wants His disciples so free from self-showiness that they don’t even know what they are giving. Jesus also encourages His disciples to avoid making a public spectacle of themselves in prayer. Jesus promises that God will reward genuine, sincere prayer offered to Him sincerely. Jesus does not criticize public prayer. Jesus also condemns the public display of fasting, not fasting itself. Jesus tells His disciples to prepare to fast as if they’re preparing for a holiday.
So, God is calling us to repent, both publicly and privately and shows us how to do it in the privacy of our own home and in public.
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