Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Before the first reading:

About 400 years before Jesus, Judah experienced a famine. The prophet Joel hopes that acts of penance by the people will prompt God to relieve the famine. He fears the famine may humiliate Judah and its God before the other nations.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Paul has defended his authority as apostle, pointing to his sufferings as credentials. Now he urges his critics to join him in the apostolate of reconciling the world to God.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Jesus' sermon on the mount is full of contrasts between ordinary beliefs and behaviors and those of Jesus' followers. In this passage, we hear three ways to prefer God's way of holiness over human esteem.

First Reading, Joel 2:12-18

The Historical Situation: Joel prophesied around 400 BC. His main concern was the coming "Day of the Lord," which was to be a terrible cataclysm, especially for the unfaithful. A plague of locusts had ravaged the crops of the people of Judah, and Joel sees this as a foreshadowing of the Day of the Lord. In today's verses, he urges the calling of a solemn assembly where the people are to pledge repentance and to pray for relief.

Verse 14, "Perhaps he will again relent ...", seems oddly punctuated. The first clause describes what God might mercifully do, and the second seems like a cheerful, grateful toast of God. You would expect two sentences, maybe two paragraphs, for two disparate thoughts. But a footnote in The New Jerusalem Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1985) clarifies this. The blessings the Lord might leave are restored crops, from which the grateful people can create "offerings and libations" to give back to God in sacrifice. Remember, these poor, hardscrabble farmers usually thought in very earthy terms. Your basic good life meant mainly good crops, which were the surest sign of God's favor, and the surest source of anything you could offer back to God.

A theological aside: That's why it was such a breakthrough, from strictly materialist thinking to a more spiritual sensibility, when the psalmist could say, "My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn." (Psalm 51:19)This guy didn't have a spotless lamb or anything else material to sacrifice; all he had was a right attitude. Jesus affirmed the rightness of this when he praised the poor widow whose Temple offering seemed so tiny in Luke 21:1-4.)

Proclaiming It: Proclaim the next few sentences with rapid urgency. You're repeating the words of a strong-minded prophet trying to whip into shape a discouraged people. Notice the sentences are all in the imperative mood. Well, sound imperative.

Pause before the second-last sentence, "Why should they say among the peoples [Why should our pagan neighbors, who are always laughing at us, say] ..." Make it sound like what it is, a rhetorical question.

The mood changes again before the last sentence, so pause again, then tell the happy ending with relief and gratitude in your voice.

Second Reading, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2

The Historical Situation: Paul began his Christian life and apostolic vocation when Christians were sure that Christ would come again soon. Their level of expectation was like Joel's (see above). This reading, from early in Paul's career, has that urgency. Try to capture that in your preparation and speaking.

The immediate context of these verses is hard to summarize. For one thing, Paul's writing here is passionate and less than tidy. Like many people, the Corinthians seem to have taken Paul's sufferings as a sign of God's disfavor. On the contrary, Paul says, God does not judge like we do, and his sufferings prove his sincerity. In Christ everything is new (so old ways of judging are upended). The newness portends reconciliation of the world with God in Christ, and that's what we're asked to join.

Proclaiming It: Verse 5:21, "God made him who did not know sin ...", bears careful proclamation. It means God made Jesus, who was sinless, bear the consequences of others' sins ("be sin"), so that the others might enjoy the very life of God. If you proclaim it as written, the only way you'll capture this nuance is to hit hard the word "be" in the phrase "to be sin." Say it aloud to yourself, or to a coach in your home, until it sounds like what it means.

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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

The prophets Hosea and Joel, by the Master Mateo (active 1161-1217), part of his Portico de la Gloria 1168-88, in the Stone Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela. The whole Portico is described most interestingly here, the blog of Andrea Garcia.

This page updated January 9, 2024.