Homily for Ash Wednesday

Today we receive the ashes, a reminder we will die. Today we hear the call to repent, to change our attitudes. Today the Gospel speaks of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Today Lent begins. And with a poet, we can say: “Welcome, dear feast of Lent”.

Lent is not one of the seven sacraments. But it is what we call a sacramental, a sign of spiritual things created by the Church, and a source of grace for us if we embrace it.  And the great grace of Lent, as St John Paul II said one Ash Wednesday, is our Lord himself. At Easter, in the paschal Triduum of his death, burial and resurrection, Christ will meet us full on. Lent prepares us for this. Lent says, “Bring it on!”

Of today’s readings, it’s the first that strikes me, from the prophet Joel. “Now, now, it is the Lord who speaks, come back to me with all your heart.” We know virtually nothing about Joel. We don’t even know when exactly B. C. he lived. The prophecy he left behind is short: 3 chapters, 3 ½ pages in modern Bibles. What we do know, however, is that as one of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit spoke through him and still does. On an unknown date, Israel was ravaged by a plague of locusts, one of the great disasters that could befall a country at that time. It meant destruction of the grass and crops, the cereals, the vines, the figs, the olives, the dates, the pomegranates, and therefore famine and starvation for man and beast alike. It was ecological, economic, human catastrophe. The people felt they were under God’s judgment. Hadn’t he promised them a Land flowing with milk and honey? Instead, their Garden of Eden had become a desert. And there was a further suffering too: the liturgy of the Temple depended on crops and animals; these were the raw material of Israel’s offerings. They were unable to fulfil the purpose for which the Land was given them, the worship of the true and living God. (Remember Covid and closed churches).   This was the context in which Joel received the gift of prophecy. For him the whole experience was a call to the people to put themselves right with the Lord, to return to him. This is the context of today’s passage. He begins with words straight from the divine mouth: “come back to me with all your heart”. Then he reminds them who the Lord is. He evokes the revelation to Moses on Mt Sinai: “for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent”. The Lord is on their side. Joel assures them that if they turn to him, the gracious God will turn to them. He foresees a meeting of two answering turns, two dancing partners coming back to each other, like in a Highland reel: God and us. This is Lent and Easter. God can “repent” as well as us. “Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes?” What a beautiful phrase that last one is: the Lord blessing as he passes. At Easter every year, the Lord passes. He fulfils his Passover.  He passes from death to life, and as he does so “leaves a blessing”. In Lent, and in the Stations of the Cross, in Holy Week and at the Easter Vigil we remember and relive this passing, Pasch, passage, Passover of the Lord. All in hope of his turning to us, as he turned to Peter after his denial, and leave a blessing. Lord, turn to us and leave a blessing as you pass, leave a blessing on warring hearts and suffering people! And what is the blessing? “Oblation and libation for the Lord your God”, Joel says. A hope fulfilled when, nn the night he was betrayed, Christ took bread and cup and blessed God, and in the Eucharist took away our famine and gave us back worship in spirit and in truth.

Next, Joel summons the priests and Levites, the ministers of the Lord – the clergy, we might say.  He tells them to organise a liturgy. “Sound the trumpet in Zion! Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together!” We do a lot of that in Lent, we clergy. We enrich the liturgical menu, so all of us, people and priests, can come together more often. Hence, the Station Masses, opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Stations of the Cross, the rites for people preparing for sacramental initiation, and the great services of the Triduum. Hence too, the communal efforts at charity, the collecting for SCIAF, responding to literal famines now. “Call the people together!” Lent is synodal. In Lent, We walk together more than usual, we come out of our isolations and renew ourselves as the Body of Christ. “Spare your people, O Lord”, prays Joel. We’ll hear that very prayer in its beautiful chant: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo.  Lent is an effort of the whole Church throughout the world, of catechumens and faithful. “Why should it be said among the nations, ‘Where is their God?” Yes, he becomes visible in us!

“Then the Lord, says Joel, jealous on behalf of his land, took pity on his people.” Lent is this! “God of thy pity” begins a lovely Lenten hymn. And Joel goes on and says: “the Lord answered and said to his people, “Behold I am sending to you grain, wheat and oil, and you will be satisfied.” Yes, the locusts may swarm, nibbling away at our lives, but the Lord is stronger. Grace will fall like rain. The famine will end. Greenness return. Grain will grow. We will realise afresh – Lent and Easter, Ascensiontide and Pentecost – the rich gifts of spiritual life the Lord lavishes on the land of the Church: the bread of Christ’s word, of his Body, the wine of his Blood and the oil of the Holy Spirit. “And you will be satisfied.”

“Welcome, dear Feast of Lent”.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 22 February 2023


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