And if we do that, we can be assured that a wondrous God is ready to receive us once again. Joel turns to one of the Hebrew Bible's most glorious and memorable descriptions of YHWH, first uttered on the mountain of Sinai at Exodus 34:6 (and echoed in Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15 and 145:8; Jon. 4:2). "YHWH is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing" (Joel 2:13).

In many respects, this familiar quotation is key to a full understanding of what Joel's message of repentance is about. The words used here are stupendous in their importance. The God who calls us to repentance is "gracious." The word means what it means for us: "free gift." Just as "Noah found favor (chen) in YHWH's sight" (Gen. 6:8), he was chosen through no merit of his own, so God is filled with chen for the people. Further, YHWH is "merciful" (rachum). This Hebrew word is rooted in the noun "womb." When the Hebrews attempted to describe the deep compassion of their God, they thought first of a woman's womb and the deep attachment she feels for the child she will give life to.

YHWH is also "slow to anger," quite literally "long of nostrils." The word "anger" is from the noun "nostril," obviously referring to what happens to the nose of someone who shows fury on her face. And lastly, God "changes the divine mind about evil," or "relents from punishing." True repentance will meet a God anxious to relent, anxious to receive the repentant ones openly, with favor and womb-like love.

And all are called to this repentance: the aged, the children, breast-fed infants. Why, even the bride and her groom are called from their wedding day and spurred to repentance (2:16). And finally the priests:

The ministers of YHWH, are called to weep and to cry out, "Spare your people, O YHWH, and do not make your heritage a mockery. Why should it be said among the nations, 'Where is their God?'" (2:17)

If a people genuinely repent in the attempt to align their lives with God, that loving and compassionate God will receive them, and all the nations will know beyond a doubt that that God is alive and well and active among the people.

And so it is for us Lenten people. We start our journey with the ashes of repentance, moving toward the God who calls us and is eager to receive us, a God of deep compassion and restless longing for God's people. And at the end, we will see once again how this God is the God of life and not death, not a locust-like God of destruction but a God ever ready to display womb love for all.