Prepare for the Day
Ash Wednesday. Fr Bruno Clifton suggests that we make this Lent a time of preparation for celebration and for justice.
A dominant theme in the Bible, and in every human life, is the desire for vindication.
It’s a desire for truth and justice, certainly, for wrongs being righted. But it is also the desire for understanding, for recognition, for justification. The oppressed, the suffering, the righteous yearn for freedom, justice, and peace… a resolution. So it should not surprise us that within many poor, deprived and persecuted communities around the world, the Book of the Apocalypse is the Bible’s most popular book, for it describes Christ’s vindication of those who hope in him.
Longing for justice can be a cry of distress that wonders when vindication will arrive, like in the psalms: ‘O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?’ (Psalm 94:3). Or it can be a prophetic description of that exonerating day of the Lord, detailing how, if not precisely when, justice will finally come.
Yet perhaps to be expected of prophetic oracles, it is ambiguous on which side of justice we may find ourselves: ‘for the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can endure it?’ (Joel 2:11b). Vindication cuts both ways, and when wrongs are righted, our own misdeeds must come to light and be resolved somehow. The Lord’s Day brings ‘all flesh’ to a reckoning, as in Genesis 6:12. And the tale of the flood (Gen 6-8), after all, is a tale of cosmic vindication. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose, is the warning… and ‘be merciful just as your Father is merciful…’ (Luke 6:36).
It is with this foresight, then, that the prophet Joel in the face of famine seeks salvation from the Lord through his mercy (Joel 2:13). God’s call for fasting, weeping, and mourning is fitting in a situation where vindication is on the horizon, because it forces acknowledgement that others may receive justice against us.
And, appropriate for ushering in a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev 21:1), the solemn assembly is a global fast. Joel’s rhetoric employs merisms, a literary device using extremes to indicate the full range of referents: ‘assemble the elders, gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber…’ (Joel 2:16). All states and stages of life are called to the fast because all flesh must face the reckoning. But will there be another flood?
In the Sermon on the Mount, from which we hear today, Jesus looks towards the day of vindication: the beatitudes, a righteousness higher than the old, and the fulfilment of law and prophets. As we begin our Lenten solemn assembly, Jesus explains how to effectively fast, weep, and mourn, how to give alms, and how to pray.
‘Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory’ (Psalm 115:1). It is not for your glory, but for God’s. It is not for God’s benefit, but for yours. Lenten activities simply fashion a disposition for welcoming the cleansing judgement of God. A judgement which bursts forth as Jesus mounts the cross; a great and terrible day of the Lord when he rises from the tomb; a vindication when Jesus ascends to heaven and pours out the Holy Spirit ‘on all flesh’ (Joel 2:28; cf. Gen 6:12-13) – a new flood.
In other gospel passages, Jesus seems less interested in penance. When asked why his disciples do not fast, Jesus identifies with a bridegroom: ‘the wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?’ (Matt 9:15a). Yet, as Joel prophesies, the bridegroom must leave his room. ‘The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’ (Matt 9:15b).
Does this mean that the Lenten fast is a flight from God’s salvation, from the fact that he has restored all things in Christ? No, the bridegroom’s absence is not the end. In another parable looking to the Lord’s Day, Jesus confirms that the kingdom of heaven is like those waiting for the bridegroom to return, so that we can go into the feast (Matt 25:1-13).
Lent is the kingdom of heaven, then. And Easter our vindication.
Readings: Joel 2:12-18 | 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 | Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
Image: detail from The Last Judgement by Stefan Lochner, photograph © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0
Thank you that is full of meaning and helpful.