Opening The Old Testament
Fasting For Fear: Reflections on Ash Wednesday
Little wonder that Joel founds his call to religious conversion on the awesome event of a locust plague, a plague with no apparent origin and no easily expected end. When Joel announces the coming of the plague, he uses words like "darkness and gloom," clouds and thick darkness, and "blackness spread upon the mountains," a gloom I experienced in 1950s Phoenix when the locusts literally blotted out the sun. The proper response to such a supernatural and appalling event must be change—repentance. "Yet, even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; tear your hearts and not your clothes" (Joel 2:12-13). Sincere change of heart, not merely outward displays of change, are what God demands of the people as they gaze in horror as their livelihoods are devoured by the insatiable insect beasts.
And here of course appears the connection with Ash Wednesday. The church has for centuries set aside the fifty days that precede Easter as a time for self-reflection, for prayer and fasting. In effect, in the light of Joel's dramatic context, we are all to turn especially to fasting and weeping and mourning in the contexts of our own 21st-century plagues of locusts. For just as locusts burst forth with sudden and unexpected ferocity, so violence against women and children bloom in horrific ways unexpected and monstrous. Just as locusts devour everything they can reach with their constantly cutting jaws, so does 21st-century poverty devour the hopes and dreams of billions of our fellow human beings. Just as locusts leave devastation in their wake, so do militarism and hatred and loathing of difference leave oceans of pain and crying in their considerable wake.
In the light of our modern plagues of locusts, increasing numbers of people are echoing what Joel feared all those years ago. "Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is your God?'" (Joel 2:17) As locusts hop and cut and devour, what proof is there that God has anything to do with any of these terrible things? This to me is the hard question of Lent. When you get your cross of ashes this year, do not merely think of your own life and its various insect plagues. It is too light a thing to use Lent as a private religious practice only. If Lent is to sound forth its call for transformation, we must think also of the larger locust infestations that forever plague our corporate lives as well as our private ones. When we fast this Lent, and I hope you do that as a regular discipline, I pray your fast will be not just for you to lose a pound or two, but to remember those who fast from lack of food, not from ease of decision. In the face of our plagues of locusts, let us not fast from fear, but fast for others, tearing our hearts and not our clothes, opening ourselves up to the call of God to serve our brothers and sisters far and near.
Author's Note: Another reminder of the Baltic Cruise on which will speak of the book of Job. We sail September 3 from Copenhagen. Full details may be found at www.eo.travel. I hope to see you there!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.