Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 - link to the NRSV text
How do we respond in times of calamity?
I recall the weeks following September 11, 2001: the prayer services, the increase in attendance in houses of worship, a seemingly collective and united turn towards the divine in order to make sense of what had happened. For just a moment, we all gathered together around a common need to grieve, to mourn, trying to understand what was happening. Children and adults, young and old, male and female, we all turned and gathered in common need and supplication.
These are the images that came to mind when I read the words from the prophet Joel:
Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing…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 (Joel 2:13, 15-16).
This does not mean I’m arguing that 9/11 was punishment from
God. But the actions that the prophet
calls the people of Judah to are very reminiscent of what occurred here in the
United States in the weeks following the fall of the World Trade Center.
The prophet calls for a collective and united turn towards the LORD their God, to come together, the aged and the children, even the infants. The tragedy that is on the horizon in the form of an advancing army (cf. 2:12) is one that threatens everyone, and thus everyone should assemble before the LORD.
Joel’s call to repentance and religious observance is not one of individual repentance and regret, though that is an element. Instead, Joel calls for communal faith to be enacted, for the people to come together, to seek God’s presence as one assembly. This is congruent with advice John Wesley once received and recorded in his journal: “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” It is only together that true faith can be lived out.
Which brings us to Lent and Ash Wednesday. Too often Lenten observance becomes an individual thing: what am I going to give up for Lent? How is my heart before God this Lenten season? But to restrict Lent to individual piety is to miss the words from the prophet Joel, that true repentance is something done together.
We are symbolically moving into a time of calamity and tragedy, where we remember the dark days of Jesus’ life and ministry as we move from the mount of Transfiguration this past Sunday to the mount of Calvary on Good Friday. We are entering the valley, beginning our journey towards the cross.
And theologically, what is occurring in this season is a result of our choices: our refusal to be redeemed, our refusal to treat each other with love and dignity, our inability to love God and each other fully and completely, our rejection of God’s Kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim in favor of our own fiefdoms.
Yet what we meant for evil, God used for good. The One we thought was destroyed through our
violence was exalted in glory.
The day of the LORD is near, a “day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:2). The shadows of Lent are coming upon us, preparing us for the new light and life of Easter.
So call a fast! Assemble the people! Sanctify the congregation! Let us come together! For Lent is here; may we weep for our brokenness as individuals and as communities. May we cry out for mercy, we who are loved but struggle to love in return. May we, in our ashes of mourning, repent and turn again to the God of our Salvation.
And in our weeping, mourning, and fasting, may we once again discover the God who loves us so, who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13).