Opening The Old Testament
The Gracious God of Ash Wednesday: Reflections on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Lectionary Reflections on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
It is that time of year again when the church calls us to do what we should have been doing during the rest of the year, namely, fast, repent, pray, think more deeply about our lives with God, and go out and act accordingly. Precisely why we confine such talk to Ash Wednesday and Lent has always made me somewhat leery of the suddenly deeply liturgical imposition of ashes and the subsequent six-week denial of chocolate or all sugar or, in my case, Brussels sprouts. (The fact that I hate Brussels sprouts has never deterred me from giving them up with religious fervor.) The whiff of hypocrisy impales the air just a tad as I kneel for my oily cross.
Yet, there remain all manner of good reasons for getting that smudge on the head again this year. Something very, very important is happening, in spite of my wavering desire to perform once again. Old prophet Joel, well before the days of dirty foreheads and obsessive talk of crosses, has some things on his prophetic mind that might help the dark cynic that hides in all of us as we head for the altar this Wednesday.
We cannot quite be sure when Joel put stylus to scroll, but early 4th century BCE should be about right, given his talk of temple and priestcraft and the implication that Nehemiah and Ezra's wall-building mission may be somewhat in the past. The trigger for his unforgettable images that have rung down the ages is a plague of locusts (so Joel 1). Despite the fevered foolishness of predictive apocalyptic gurus, whose bucks far outstrip their brains, in that first chapter Joel is not talking about helicopter gunships or smart bombs, but good old-fashioned locusts. Locusts are in fact grasshoppers on steroids and to this day no one quite knows just why groups of grasshoppers suddenly merge into vast uncountable hoards of chomping, clacking maniacs who can strip fields bare in the blink of an eye. But they do. I myself witnessed something like this sort of plague in Phoenix, AZ some 50 years ago when the sun was literally blacked out, the streetlights came on, and we crunched on dead insect parts for weeks on end.
But in the ancient world, such an event was plague indeed. Hard-won fields were destroyed, crops denuded, and people starved. To a prophet, this was not merely one more locust infestation; this was a harbinger of the coming of YHWH. Hence, he shouts, "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all those who live in the land tremble, for the day of YHWH is coming; it is near" (Joel 2:1). There is a long Israelite history for the day of YHWH. Some 400 years earlier the prophet Amos warned the people who had become anxious for the day of YHWH, a day they had grown to believe was for them a day of joy and victory, that it was in fact "darkness and not light" (Amos 5:18). Joel now echoes Amos by describing the day of YHWH as "darkness and gloom, of clouds and thick darkness, a blackness spread over the mountains" (Joel 2:2a). In fact, he continues, the coming day of YHWH is like "a great and powerful army, one never seen before, one never to be seen again" (2:2b).
What possible connection could all of this lurid talk of locusts and gloom and armies have with our quiet kneeling to receive our sticky crosses? More than we think at first glance, I think. My too often half-hearted attempt to "get with the program" of the call of Christ is based on this cataclysmic appearance of the Holy One in our midst. Do not be fooled by that coming as the child thing; the child was heralded by armies of angels, you remember, feted by some kings, feared to the point of genocide by another. Because we have sweetened our Christmas celebrations with cider and goo, we have hidden all this earthly upheaval under a soft blanket of tinsel and presents. But YHWH has come, we claim. So now on Ash Wednesday this is the YHWH we face, the armied YHWH, the gloomy, cloudy, awesome (in the full meaning of that grand word) YHWH. As we kneel at the altar, it is that YHWH who bids us kneel.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.