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Ash Wednesday, Years A, B, & C, annually, late winter, (March 5, 2014) Lectionary index # 219

A digest for the congregation: Arrange with your liturgy committee to have these brief historical introductions read to the assembly before you do each reading.

The presider may speak these before the first and second readings, and before rising for the gospel acclamation. Print this page, cut it at the blue lines, and give the introduction paragraphs to the person who will speak them.


Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014
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.
Between psalm and 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.

To pay for use of the words above, please subtract an equal number of optional words from other places in the liturgy (click here for some suggestions).

First reading, Joel 2:12-18 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

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 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

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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Several other commentaries on these passages. All are thoughtful, all quite readable, from the scholarly to the popular.
Links may be incomplete more than a few weeks before the "due date."
Bible Study pages of Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, Picayune, Mississippi, for a verse-by-verse interpretation of the first and second readings. The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes

The Lectionary selections in the frame at the left, if any, are there for your convenience. The publishers of the page in that frame have no connection, except for membership in the one Body of Christ, with the publisher of this page. Likewise the publishers of the pages on the links above.


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Last modified: January 28, 2014