Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. (Joel 2: 12-13)
Each year at the Mass for Ash Wednesday, which begins the Season of Lent, we hear this reading from the Prophet Joel. Despite not knowing many specific details about the life and preaching of this prophet, he does leave us with a challenging call each year to a spirit of repentance, conversion and hope during this time of Lent.
Joel’s prophetic message begins with a lament over the destruction of the land (Joel 1:2-12). The prophet presents many powerful images of the dire situation in which his community has found itself. The land has been invaded, laid waste, “widowed,” without produce for food or sacrifice and all joy has slowly withered from the hearts of the people.
The reality is that Israel has failed to heed the warnings of earlier prophets, and Joel’s appeal for repentance, and his message of further destruction, is one more sign of the nation’s continued rebellion against the God of their ancestors, the refusal to heed His word and to obey the covenantal promises received at Mount Sinai. Now, the entire people of Israel are being called to fast, and to cry out to the Lord their God, in sincere repentance of heart. In truth, he is offering his people words of encouragement and the strength to endure. Through all of this, Joel is confident that the Lord will hear their cries and rescue his people. It is the faithful constancy of God with his promise of life and protection for his people that must be the foundation of their hope.
The continued grace and mercy of God is heard in the divine appeal, to the people of Judah to repent of their sins and return to the Lord – “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning.” These are the external demonstrations of an inner repentance of heart. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” The meaning of this passage is renewed and lived each Lent, for we are reminded that it is never too late to turn away from sin; to return to the Lord with full heart, and to receive forgiveness and salvation.
The Prophet Joel’s proclamation initiates this call of repentance for each of us during Lent. It calls us to forty days of a faithful preparation for the joyous celebration of Easter – an Easter that will once again celebrate the hope of the Resurrection even in the midst of a threatening pandemic and its devastating effects on our lives. Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can experience this inner conversion of heart that will open our lives to receive the in-breaking reign of God’s grace and the hope revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Such hope and conversion is at the heart of Pope Francis’ Lenten message this year:
It may seem to many that we have been living an extended period of Lent since the onset of this pandemic and its health precautions and restrictions. Perhaps the Lord is inviting us to truly know the enduring truth of the Prophet Joel’s words this Lent “return to me with all your heart”. This Lent, is an opportunity to receive God’s grace without any reserve or restriction, and a time of great hope that inspires us in humility to seek reparation, forgiveness – and in the words of the psalmist, to experience a clean heart. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
Lent at Holy Name Church
Ash Wednesday – Feb. 17 During this time of the pandemic, the distribution of ashes will be carried out differently.
After the ashes have been blessed by the priest, the formula for the distribution (Repent… /Remember…) is said once from the sanctuary as a general pronouncement to the gathered congregation and one general response (“Amen”) is to be made by all. The ashes will be distributed by sprinkling on the head of each one without saying anything. There will be no tracing of the cross on the forehead.
Similar to the distribution of Holy Communion, all who intend to receive the ashes are required to wear a mask, even those who claim mask exemption due to health conditions. Face shields alone are not considered masks. Ashes will only be distributed on Ash Wednesday.