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Joel 2:12-18: Between vestibule and altar, let the priests lament.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2: Be reconciled to God!
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18: Your Father sees all that is done in secret.

The absence of historical markers in the Prophecy of Joel makes it a hard book to date. We can’t contextualise it with certainty. In one way, this complicates our reading of it. In another way, it brings Joel peculiarly close. He could be speaking directly to us—and this Ash Wednesday he is.

His world has much in common with ours. It is fractured, anxious. It wonders what the serial occurrence of violence and loss might mean. ‘Gladness’, says the prophet just before the passage read to us, ‘gladness fails from the sons of men’. Is that not a characteristic of our age also?

Joel speaks to a nation that has known destruction. Its fields are burnt to ashes in the ‘crackling of a flame of fire’; enemies come up against it who have the ‘fangs of a lioness’; even the beasts of the land cry out ‘because the water brooks are dried up’, and they thirst sorely.

What is the Lord’s response? It is to call Israel to account. ‘Even now’, he says, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, mourning’. The prophet develops this call with a statement of hope: ‘Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him?’

We have here a wonderful example of Israel’s faith, which cultivates the certainty that even the most calamitous disaster is meaningful, somehow, and is a summons of some kind. It is a faith that hinges on a keen, often painfully experienced, sense of responsibility. To believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to know oneself answerable. And part of the secret behind Israel’s astonishingly perennial ability to reform and revitalise itself is surely this mindset by which, instead of surrendering to victimhood, it asks, ‘What must I do? What can I carry?’ Never mind if the burden to be borne is properly another’s load. We see here a striking foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on which, throughout Lent, our eyes are fixed.

We live in times that are quick to anger, poor in steadfast love, that love to point the finger and accuse, whose mindset is litigious. God knows there is enough malfunction in the Church, in society. But what if, instead of declaring others’ guilt, we assumed a portion of its weight? What if, like the priests of Joel’s time, we stepped out between vestibule and altar, carrying our hoards of grief and crying out, ‘Spare thy people, Lord, and make not thy heritage a reproach’?

If we did this, brothers and sisters, we should draw down a healing cloud of mercy upon earth, for our prayer should express a love that, for all its being imperfect, is all-powerful before the Throne of Mercy.

Let us make of these forty days a time of heartfelt intercession for the Church, for the world. Let us pray for the release of captives, the forgiveness of sinners, the healing of wounds, the reconciling of enemies—and let us carry these prayers into concrete initiatives and actions.

If we do, this Lent can become a season of transformation, forging swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. And it will make us a little less unworthy to partake of Christ’s Pasch as we come to know, by the power of his sacrifice, what it is to see with our eyes, not another’s, the bright dawn of new life rising on a world so compactly shrouded in the shadow of death.

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