In a world darkened by sin, prayers of confession and pleas for forgiveness are the acceptable sacrifices to God.
In most religions there is a rhythm between feasts and fasts, between celebration with feasting, and restraint with abstinence. Usually, specific times of fasting are a preparation for the feasting to follow. In Christianity, Lent is the season of fasting before the feast of Easter. In Islam, the fasting of the month of Ramadan is ended by the three-day ‘Id al-Fitr, feast of breaking the fast. In the early Christian centuries, the fasting of Lent lasted only two or three days before Easter, but after the fourth century the fasting was gradually extended in the Western Church to the traditional 40 days before Easter, not counting the six Sundays of Lent. (All Sundays are feasts, so one does not fast on Sundays.)
In Judaism, the only universally required fast is Yom Kippur. The Hebrew scriptures report fasts on many occasions, imploring divine aid and proclaiming mourning and penitence, but these are special events and not prescribed regular fasts. (See the variations in fixed fasts reflected in the prophetic passages Zechariah 7:2-7 and 8:18-19.) In later times, the Ninth of Ab (mid-summer) became an annual fast day commemorating a collection of disasters in Jewish history. These disasters included two destructions of the Jerusalem temple (Babylonian and Roman) and two different conquests of Judah by the Romans (see the Mishnah Ta’anith 4:6). In New Testament times, Pharisees fasted regularly, perhaps two days a week, as the proud Pharisee of Luke 18:12 claims. Jesus recognized that his followers would later observe fasts (Mark 2:19-20, and Matthew 6, discussed below), but he gave them no instructions for specific times of fasting. After the resurrection, the church in Antioch used fasts and prayer as preparation for commissioning apostles and congregational leaders (Acts 13:3 and 14:23).
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten fasting for Christians. It is the solemn moment that opens a period of recognizing the sinful condition in which humans find themselves. It begins a time of contrition for acts and omissions that separate one from God; a time of mourning for what has been lost—from the world and from one’s self. And communally, it confesses a painful falling short of God’s expectation for justice and compassion from human to human.
Ash Wednesday is a cry of pain at our lostness, and a plea for forgiveness of our destructive sins. The following texts reflect moments of such traumas in the life of the community and of the self.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
The prophetic reading presents a great crisis for the community—the very Day of the Lord, “a day of darkness and gloom” (verse 2, NRSV). The crisis is total; it includes everyone in the community.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast… (verse 16).
Though scholars have long recognized that the prophet refers to a terribly severe locust plague, the oracles seem deliberately vague and ominous. The horror impending is not entirely natural. It has overtones of eschatological warfare.
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come (verse 2).
The psychological and spiritual tone is of ultimate doom. All personal and communal reality is under this shadow. Nothing else matters.
The appropriate human response is repentance.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing (verses 12-13).
Fasting here is an act showing sorrow, sorrow for alienation from God. Only a return to God can lead to relief, a return by all the social body caught in the doom of separation from the source of holiness.
Fasting, not eating for a day, is an external sign of emptiness, of the absence of God from the depths of the soul, communal and personal.
This psalm selection is the quintessential text for Ash Wednesday. It is the most profound personal confession of sin in the psalms.
The “lament” psalms are all arguments for the defense. The speakers are in trouble of some kind and they are pleading before the high judge to deliver them from this trouble. The arguments and rhetorical strategies developed in a particular lament psalm depend on the source of the trouble. Whose fault is it? There are three possibilities.
(1) Most commonly, the trouble is caused by enemies, that is, by others. These are the prayers of the falsely accused righteous ones, and the prayer asks God to deliver one from the enemies. Psalm 7 is a striking example.
(2) Less commonly, the trouble is caused by oneself. The speaker is the cause of his or her own trouble, which in some way or another is sin. It is especially sin against God, but may include sin against others. These are the “penitential” psalms, confessing sin and begging for forgiveness, rather than the destruction of one’s enemies, though accusations against enemies are sometimes thrown in for good measure. The seven traditional penitential psalms are 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143, but the greatest of these is psalm 51.
(3) Very occasionally the cause of the speaker’s trouble may be God, which poses a very tricky problem for the speaker of a lament. (It is necessary to indict the judge!) The speaker’s misery leads to desperate and daring accusations.
I am silent; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand (Psalm 39:9-10, NRSV).
This complex type of accusation is at least hinted at in psalms 39 and 88, and has its full blown expression, of course, in the book of Job.
The power and profundity of Psalm 51 stand on their own. Read it, carefully and thoughtfully, preferably in more than one translation. Only a few features of the reading will be noticed here.
The language of sin and forgiveness. The psalm speaks of “transgressions,” “iniquity,” and “sin” (singular) and uses verbs “to sin” and “to do evil.” For purposes of this psalm, these are all synonyms. “Against you, you alone, have I sinned…” (verse 4 [Hebrew verse 6; Hebrew verse numbering is always two higher than English in this psalm]). The personal relation to God has been alienated by the sin, transgressions, and iniquity.
The speaker affirms that sin is a kind of power that threatens one’s whole existence. It extends back to conception and birth. “I was born guilty, / a sinner when my mother conceived me” (verse 5, NRSV. The Tanak [NJPS] version translates, “I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me.”). This does not refer to sexuality as somehow sinful, of course, but to the inevitability of sinning as humans live in the real world.
A variety of images are used for God’s forgiving sin. “Blot out transgressions” views sin as illegally crossing a boundary (transgress). Such action leaves tracks in the sand, and forgiveness means that these tracks are erased – removing evidence that one stepped over the line. “Wash me from my iniquity” is scrubbing off dirt and filth from one’s body. “Cleanse me from my sin” is a ritual expression, meaning to purify someone or something that has become “unclean” and thus is denied access to sacred precincts, to the divine presence. An extension of this last image is, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (verse 7). Hyssop was the branch of a shrub that was used as a brush to sprinkle holy water or blood in ritual settings (Leviticus 14:4 and Exodus 12:22).
Expressing a more personal action by God are “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow,” “hide your face from my sins,” and, “let the bones that you have crushed rejoice,” that is, let there be a wholly new recovery of my health and wholeness before you!
The climax of praying for forgiveness, however, is the plea for full personal transformation.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me….
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit (verses 10 and 12).
A final argument for why God should forgive and renew this person is the witness it will create among others. “O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.” Then, the speaker declares, a true offering will be made to God.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (verses 15 and 17).
That final declaration is the essential message of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
The epistle reading begins, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (NRSV). Reconciliation to God is the long-range goal of self-examination, of sorrow for sins, of confession of emptiness apart from God, and of trust in the promise of forgiveness.
There follows a remarkable statement of the divine action in Christ. The statement is a little clumsy but is the more striking for that reason. Very literally it reads, “The one knowing no sin [Christ], … he [God] made sin, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (verse 21).
The expression “Christ was made sin” probably plays on the double meaning of the Hebrew word for sin . This same Hebrew word means both a sinful condition and a sin-offering that removes that condition. Sinners bring a sin-offering to the altar which the priest sacrifices for them and they are freed of their sinful condition. That is how the ritual cult worked. Paul is saying that Christ went to the altar (read “cross”) as a sin-offering on our behalf. Therefore, as long as we are “in him” (included in the effect of his sacrifice) we live in the benefit of that sin-offering and are reconciled to God.
In the remainder of the passage Paul elaborates the roles of the apostles as “ambassadors” of Christ (5:20a), ambassadors who bring to sinners the message that reconciliation is available. He emphasizes the great hardships and acts of self-denial that the ambassadors of Christ go through in this work for God (6:4-10). (The Lectionary dwells more on these trials of the apostle in the readings from this epistle in the early Pentecost season of year B.)
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is subordinate to the prayer of confession in the psalm. This selection from the Sermon on the Mount warns against conspicuous consumption in religion—against public displays when one practices charity (verses 2-4), prays in public (verses 5-6), and when one fasts (verses 16-18). Such religiousness for public consumption is its own reward. It leaves the relation of God and sinner unaltered (though does one ever really know?).
What must be sought instead is something that makes a difference in heaven, not just in the media or opinion polls, not just accumulating earthly treasures (verses 19-21). In a word, true religion—“the sacrifice acceptable to God” (Psalm 51:17)—is not about externals, but about the inner being, about “a clean heart” and “a new and right spirit within.”
One may take ashes on one’s forehead at the Ash Wednesday service, but what counts is the awareness of the darkness in the world and in oneself—the darkness exposed by the proclamation of the Day of the Lord, and illuminated only by the promise of God’s forgiveness.