- Joel 2:1-2,12-17
The writer of the Book of Joel sets off an “alarm” for “all the inhabitants of the land….” “The Lord is coming, it is near….” A season of “deep darkness” will accompany the arrival of a “great and powerful army….” In this moment of crisis, “return to me,” says the Lord, your God, “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” “Return to the Lord your God,” who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Announce the commencement of a fast with the blast of a “trumpet.” Gather all the people, young and old, including infants; summon the bride and bridegroom from their honeymoon. The priests should station themselves “between the vestibule and the altar” in the Temple and “weep,” saying: “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery….“
- OR Isaiah 58:1-12
The text of (“Third”) Isaiah attacks the hypocrisy of those who participate in acts of penance (“fasting”) but still “Serve their own interests… and oppress all your workers.” It also introduces a very specific definition of penance: the kind of penance the Lord wants is “to loose the burden of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free….” More specifically, “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your home….” The consequence: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly….” Now, when you call upon the name of the Lord, the Lord will answer. The text repeats for emphasis the specific acts of justice that will produce “light.” This will be the source of strength and renewal. New structures will be built on old foundations. Then you will earn a new reputation: “Repairer of the breach,” the restorer of “safe streets.”
- Psalm 103
According to the psalmist, the Lord knows intimately our failings and limitations, but the Lord’s compassion for us is, nevertheless, limitless.
- II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Paul offers his life as an example of the way the paradox (“foolishness”) of the gospel actually works in real life. “…As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
- Matthew 6: 1-6,16-21
Only Matthew’s Jesus provides these warnings about hypocrisy with specific instructions for “piety,” which are consistent with what the prophets said before him: generosity to others in need, fasting and prayer. Do not do these things in any ways that they might redound to your self-image or reputation. Rather, do them in “secret,” because they are what the Lord asks us to do.
These readings and the gospel appointed for the First Day of Lent sound three important themes, and also declare the final destination of this forty day and six Sunday pilgrimage. They specify what act of “penance” the Lord wants– “justice”– with a warning about how not to conduct a season of “penance;” they invite the willing to examine their faults; and they promote reflection on one’s own mortality. And they also announce the purpose of doing these specific things: to see more clearly the Lord’s “steadfast love.” This pilgrimage will take us through the least attractive aspects of our humanity and reach its destination on Easter Eve/Easter Day in front of an empty tomb, the sign of God’s prevailing love.
Penance While acts of self-denial serve their purpose, the text of the Book of Isaiah insists that the Lord wants specific acts of “penance” –feeding the hungry, relieving the burdens of those who are weighed down, sheltering the homeless. The Lord is repulsed by the practice of casuistic piety as a substitute for specific acts of justice. Jesus expresses the same conviction when he calls for generosity to others. He also warns that if these acts to be authentic they ought to be carried out in “secret.” Penance in these texts is not pietistic posturing, penance is action!
Self-examination The second theme sounded on this day is intense self-examination which arrives at a deeper, more honest self-awareness, that is inevitably different than one’s public persona. And, it ought to grow more honest over the years of a lifetime. One of the most productive discussions in Heidegger’s work is “die Eigenlichkeit (usually translated “authenticity”).” Given the many misrepresentations of this concept, the very useful summary and clarification given by William Blattner (Heidegger’s Being and Time) is apt for this first day of Lent. Although the received English translation of “die Eigenlichkeit” has been “authenticity,” Blattner suggests “ownedness,” and writes:
“Thus to be resolute, to own one’s self and insisting upon it, at least not in any conventional sense of these terms. After all, whoever one might take one’s ‘true self’ to be can be overtaken by the world.” “To win oneself is, in and of itself, neither to stick with the one who has been or to wear the world’s clothes lightly. Rather, to find oneself and win oneself is to see what is factically possible and important to carry through with it, whatever it’s relation to who has been heretofore might be. We can put this point by saying that the self one must find and win is one who is at this moment, but we cannot let the language of ‘moments’ (Augenblicke) mislead us. Just as who I have been is not who I have been, in the same sense of the phases of my life that have gone by, so the moment of vision of which Heidegger writes… is not the now clock-time, a tipping point between what has gone by and what is to come. This moment of vision, which might better be called a ‘moment of resolution,’ encompasses who I find myself and am able to go forward as.” (pp 166-167)
This somewhat convoluted description attempts to describe, however, a vital reality– a “moment,” more like a breathtaking flash of insight of honest, self-acknowledgement, self-awareness that transcends whatever “phase” of life one is in. We let our guard down. We bypass the personas we have projected. We allow ourselves a “moment of resolution,” of self-awareness that becomes part of one’s most honest time in private, alone; one’s deepest self-awareness it is difficult to admit to oneself, much less to anyone else.
Mortality The third prominent theme of this day is the fact of our own mortality. When Martin Heidegger writes in History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena– “This certainty that ‘I myself will die,’ is the basic certainty of Dasein [Life] itself…” ( p.316)– he is not urging his readers to wallow in a sad or morbid obsession with death. He is insisting that a full and realistic acceptance of the reality that one morning will dawn on which I no longer exist in this life is an important part of his logic that such a realization enhances, intensifies my engagement with life. One day will dawn on which I no longer have relationship with others; I can no longer make a difference. Coming to this realization, Heidegger insists, enables us to grasp the urgency and importance of the wonders of daily life, most especially in “caring” (“Sorge“) for others. So when the church includes in her liturgy for the First Day of Lent– “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”– she is not calling for a forty-day, self-inflicted scare tactic; she is saying that coming to terms with one’s own mortality is the first step on a journey that leads to confronting the certainty of death, the urgency of the hour and the hope of larger life. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University, was told in the Spring of 2013 that he had metastatic lung cancer at the age of 35. He and his wife Lucy, also a physician, made several critical decisions: they would try to have a child and she would support his wishes as he faced death. Among those wishes were access to some of his favorite books, including Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and the decision that he would write his own account of his dying. After the publication and best-seller publication of her husband’s book, When Breath Becomes Air, Lucy Kalanithi told an interviewer: “It’s so incredible because when Paul was sitting in his chair, so debilitated, and wan and thin, he was totally crackling with life. He didn’t look like he was. But he really was. He didn’t die until he died.” (New York Times, January 26, 2016, D5)
These three themes sounded on the First Day of Lent are the first step on a pilgrimage that stops right in front of an empty tomb and the promise we can infer from it, if that is our choice. If we elect to participate in its promise, it alters not only how we face death, perhaps even more importantly, it alters how we face life, day in and day out.
An urgent call to justice, to thorough-going self-examination, and to confront one’s own mortality are to be carried out not in a vacuum, but bathed in a promise! We can undertake this pilgrimage because we know about its destination.
The “credo” of the Hebrew scriptures, according to Walter Brueggemann, originated when the Lord not only re-established covenant with Israel after her notorious rebellion (Exodus 32) but actually made it more sweeping; it reappears at pivotal points in Israel’s ongoing relationship with the Lord, he notes, including in the Books of Numbers, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Jonah and in this psalm appointed for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 103. THE “credo,” is God’s self-revelation of God’s abiding traits (Exodus 34:6-7): God declares God’s-Self to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger/and abounding in steadfast love/and faithfulness/keeping steadfast love/and faithfulness for the thousandth generation/forgiving iniquity/and transgression/and sin….” The psalmist’s reiteration (v.8) to be read/sung on this day of all days is: “Compassionate and gracious is the Lord/slow to anger and abounding in kindness.”
Given that this seminal statement by God about God comes in the context of God’s delivering to Moses the commandments on stone tablets, these closing lines from the poem, “The Sinner,” by the Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert (1593-1633) are quite apt:
Yet Lord restore thine image, hear my call;
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can groan.
Remember that thou once didst write in stone.
We begin this forty day pilgrimage that will take us to the lowest points of human behavior and to blunt reminders of our own mortality. It will reach its destination in the most dazzling display of a love that could only be described as holy. It will get bleak on Thursday and Friday six weeks away, but then it will dare us to believe in steadfast love and endless compassion and kindness.