Joel 2:12–18; 2 Cor. 5:20–6:2; Matt. 6:1–6, 16–18
Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance. Throughout scripture we see references to sackcloth and ashes in connection to calls for repentance, and they continued to be symbols employed by penitents long after the New Testament period.
That penitential spirit is what ties our celebration today with this first reading, even though the use of sackcloth and ashes isn’t mentioned. Joel, or Yoel, was one of the minor prophets of Israel. The context tells us that he wrote in a time when the people of Israel had become sinful and cared more about pleasure and fine living than they did about their relationship with God. They had gotten lazy, self absorbed. Perhaps they neglected other basic observances such as care for the poor.
To me, it sounds a bit like our own culture, which should not surprise us. We’re fallen beings, after all, and we humans tend to repeat the same mistakes.
Joel calls the people back from their sinfulness, warning of God’s impending wrath and a day of judgment. He calls them not as individuals but as a community.
“Proclaim a fast, call an assembly”
The word for assembly in Hebrew is Qahal, and is translated in the Greek Old Testament as ekklesia—and that word is where we get our words in the New Testament for anything related to the Church. So Joel is calling the Church together to fast and weep and mourn for the communal sins of the nation. The repentance that Joel seeks is very much public and communal—a call to every citizen, even the bride and bridegroom who would normally be still celebrating their nuptials.
But even though Joel calls for public penance, he is not asking merely for ritual acts. He calls for true sorrow: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” You see, in addition to temple sacrifices for sin, people would often engage in other theatrics to show just how serious they were about their repentance and they’d rend their garments—that is, tear them from top to bottom. That’s pretty dramatic, and I doubt any but the wealthy could afford to do it. Joel doesn’t want that nonsense. He wants true heartfelt repentance, and nothing more will do for a God who searches hearts and thoughts.
The responsorial psalm for this evening actually leaves out an important passage that clergy and religious often pray with Psalm 51, something very apropos for today: “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is really addressing the same issue: ostentatious displays of righteousness: the public giving of alms for the purpose of gaining esteem in the eyes of others; making the worst of ones appearance when fasting so everyone knows just how much you’re suffering, and otherwise putting on a show.
When we take these ashes on our foreheads, we are not simply identifying culturally with the Church or putting on a show. We have an opportunity to enter into this season in a true spirit of repentance with the entire ekklesia—the whole Church. We do so together as a communion because all sin is communal. We have a messed up world out there, if the situation in the Crimea and Syria aren’t clear enough examples, not to mention the fact that human trafficking goes on in our back yard. Sin hurts all of us. And that is why we as a Church do penance and reparation together—to repair the damage that sin does to our world and to help Jesus complete the work that was done in Him through his sacrificial offering of love in which we’ll partake shortly. Take advantage of Lent this year and offer a contrite spirit and humbled, contrite heart to the savior who died for you.