People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Reading 1, Joel 2:12-18
12 ‘But now — declares the Lord- come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.’
13 Tear your hearts and not your clothes, and come back to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and he relents about inflicting disaster.
14 Who knows if he will not come back, relent and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a libation to be presented to the Lord your God?
15 Blow the ram’s-horn in Zion! Order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly,
16 call the people together, summon the community, assemble the elders, gather the children, even infants at the breast! Call the bridegroom from his bedroom and the bride from her bower!
17 Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, stand weeping between portico and altar, saying, ‘Spare your people, Lord! Do not expose your heritage to the contempt, to the sarcasm of the nations! Why give the peoples cause to say, “Where is their God?” ‘
18 Then, becoming jealous over his country, the Lord took pity on his people.
Gospel, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
1 (Jesus said,) ‘Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.
2 So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward.
3 But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing;
4 your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
5 ‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward.
6 But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
16 ‘When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward.
17 But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face,
18 so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
The Joel reading for Ash Wednesday points to the need for societal repentance. Only evangelical churches call for national mourning today, and then it’s usually over the abortion statistics, or the number of gays in the government. In fact, I think there might be good cause to mourn the first but not the second of these. There is something in the overall carelessness and callousness of our society towards unwanted foetuses which can’t simply be excused as “women’s rights over their own bodies.”
I heard, on the radio today, of some Italian boys who some years back subjected a girl to repeated rape and torture. This year a court had punished both the boys and their parents, saying that the boys’ lack of feeling and morality was the fault of their upbringing. There was considerably debate about the justice of that. If however we take a wider sweep and include the popular media, and even the role models in Italian society, for example Mr. Berlusconi, then it would be hard not to find them guilty of continual objectification and denigration of women. The mass media of the U.K is little better. Do we imagine these have no influence on the persistence of rape and on the pitiful rate of conviction for this crime? A day of national mourning and repentance might be salutary in such an instance.
The personal side of Lenten discipline is taken up in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus deals with the three religious duties, of alms-giving, prayer and fasting. These could be carried out as mere routines of piety, or worse, paraded as evidence of the person’s righteousness. Some radical reformers might have abolished them altogether. Jesus, however, saw them as part of the intimacy of a person and God, no more for public consumption than the embrace of lovers. They are duties of love, which express our tender obedience to God and allow us to deepen our relationship with him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer valued these as the “secret discipline” which in-formed the life of a believer. “Rend your hearts and not your clothes!” Joel advised the people. Jesus leads us to the secret place where mortal and immortal meet, and from which justice and compassion may issue.