Ash Wednesday, March 1
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! 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.
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. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 1:1-2, 12-17)
Here in the northern hemisphere, Lent always comes in winter, which feels appropriate. Lent seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving. The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and mournful shade. But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter hues: the penitential black of clerical garb and of leafless winter branches; the gray of ashes, on hands and foreheads or on icy streets; the off-white of sackcloth and of trodden snow. The Old Testament reading for today fits that perception: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2).
Yet curiously, the word “Lent” has nothing to do with winter or darkness—or fasting or penitence, even. Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin—all of which mean “Spring”! Lent is a green season—a time of growth. Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are. Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit. Lent is a season of new life—a springtime for our souls! So too, for Joel, the point of the call to repentance is found in the possibility of new life that will follow: “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him” (Joel 2:13-14). This Lent, may God’s Spirit awaken us to repentance, and so to new life.
Prayer: O God, we long for growth, yet we fear change. We long for your new life, yet fear what it will cost us. On this, your word does not reassure us! In fact, you assure us that we indeed must change, and that your new life will indeed cost us, as it cost you, everything. We pray for your Spirit to empower us, that this season of Lent would be springtime for our souls. Through Jesus our Christ, who “throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray,” Amen. (Hymn by Claudia F. Hernaman)