It is a curious thing to start an entire season of the church year in ashes; ashes are usually the end of something, rather than the beginning. And yet, here we are at the beginning of the season of Lent, the first season of the Great Cycle of Easter, a period in the church year that will take us all the way until Christ the King Sunday in November. The bulk of the church year is found in this cycle that begins here, today, in ash.
The other great cycle—the Christmas cycle—begins with an oracle from Jeremiah that reads:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14–16)
Contrast that passage with the passage from the Prophet Joel:
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
One begins with the fulfillment of a “gracious promise” and a proclamation of salvation. The other, begins with the land trembling, darkness, and an army’s destruction.
Just a slight difference in tone there.
II. THE TEXT
This passage of the prophet Joel is the traditional reading for Ash Wednesday and is part of the tradition of reading from the prophets on days of great import.
The dating of the book of Joel is widely debated; some argue that it was written in the 9th century BC during the Divided Monarchy period, others arguing that it was written prior to the Babylonian Exile in the 6thcentury BC, and others that it was written during the Persian Empire period of the 5th century BC. Whenever the text was written, the prophet delivers an oracle of judgment, prophesying the devastation of the land and the arrival of a great army, an army of locusts, later revealed to be an army of God.
It is a book that subverts the popular expectation for the “Day of the Lord.” Many in Judah had looked forward to the coming Day of the Lord as a day when God would wreak vengeance upon the enemies of Judah, destroying all those who cause them difficulty. Joel’s vision of the Day of Lord is not anything anyone should be looking forward to; it is a day of devastation and judgment, a day of sorrow and darkness. This is the day that is coming for the people.
So, happy Lent!
III. THE ROAD
But in many ways, it is the perfect text to begin a Lenten journey. The journey through Lent is a journey through the wilderness on our way to the promised land of Easter. That wilderness involves anxiety and fear, alienation and loss, sorrow and darkness. It is a journey through the very brokennesses of the world. A journey that ends at the ultimate sign of brokenness: death upon a cross.
That journey reminds me of another journey I’ve read in recent years. A few years ago, I had occasion to read a disturbing, but gripping novel by Cormac McCarthy called The Road.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel describes a bleak, lifeless world, ruined by some unnamed and undescribed catastrophe that resulted in global environmental disaster. A man and his son traverse the desolate landscape, moving southward, hoping for… God knows what. In fact, given that most animals are long dead, that there are no crops, no fish, and gangs of cannibals roam the countryside, enslaving those they find for sex or food, there is little reason to think that the man and his son will ever find anything. Among their provisions is a gun with two bullets in it: bullets not intended for self-defense, but for making that ultimate decision to forfeit all hope.
This particular dystopian vision speaks to many of our fears. McCarthy said he got the idea for the novel witnessing a wildfire on a nearby hill scorch the earth. And in an age when climatic changes are bringing violent storms, raging wildfires, and other ecological catastrophes, the bleak, lifeless world of The Road is not without some grounding in deeply held anxieties that we have about the future. If we were looking for a story that summarizes our deepest fears of alienation and the potential for loss, to explore the wilderness that we encounter during Lent, The Road is the way to go. It is a world in which all that is good is gone: all has come to ash.
In fact, the world described in The Road sounds a lot like the world that Joel describes in his prophetic oracles, right before the passage we heard read earlier:
“To you, LORD, I cry, for fire has completely destroyed the pastures of the wilderness; and flames have burned all the trees of the field. Even the field’s wild animals cry to you because the streams have dried up; the fire has completely destroyed the meadows of the wilderness.” (Joel 1:19–20 CEB)
It is the very definition of apocalyptic in the popular imagination: a wasteland of a world in which all hope is lost. The apocalypse is the judgment of God on the world for its sins, and on account of those sins, it does not end well.
IV. LIFE FROM THE ASHES
There have been two main reactions to The Road, both the film and the novel. According to one online site, The Road is either “a melancholic, yet stirringly beautiful story about the goodness of humanity in a hopeless world, or a hellish nightmare so dark that no sane person would read it.” On balance, the latter interpretation would seem to be the more likely one: nothing is living, the sun hasn’t been seen in years, photosynthesis has shut down, even the oceans are dead. Add to that the fact that although the father tells his son bedtime stories every night in which they are the heroes, saving the world, the reality is that when push comes to shove, the father acts only to save his son, even to the point of causing the deaths of others, for a reason that neither he, nor anyone else, can articulate. What is the point of survival?
And yet, even in this bleak, utterly depressing world, there is a glimmer of hope. Whether the ending of the novel is hopeful or futile is debated, but there is an important theological truth that our scriptures and our religious traditions remind us: things do not end in ash, they begin in it.
Joel presents a vision of a world under the judgment of God for all its injustices, a vision of marauding armies of locusts and fires, and calls on the leaders of the people to proclaim a fast, with weeping, and sorrow. A fast, that would have traditionally been accompanied by wearing sackcloth and ashes. But then comes this powerful statement:
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.
All has come to ash, but all is not lost. We may find ourselves in the wilderness now, lost and in the middle of despair, but the hoped for reconciliation with God is ever present:
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’
The experience of a world turned to ash will be seen as soul-crushingly depressing or as hopeful depending on whether you believe that ashes represent the end or the beginning. Ruin or new life.
Anyone who has ever worked in a garden or who has ever had to dispose of the ashes of the winter woodstove knows that ashes are really good for the soil, they help to provide conditions that allow for new life to grow. They at once signify ruin and renewal. They are a sign of destruction, but not of eternal destruction. Ashes are always tinged with hope.
It is no coincidence that we begin our Lenten journey in ashes, the ashes of our old lives: lives of injustice, of faithlessness, of fear, of hate. Amist the ashes of the old lives, however, the potential for new life arises. Lives of justice, of faithfulness, of love, of reconciliation. We here at the beginning of Lent, have the opportunity to turn our old selves into ash, and out of those ashes, allow something new and wonderful to grow.
But there is one other point to be made: the father in the story has no idea what he will find when he reaches his destination. He has no reason to think that things will be any better once he is able to get where he is going. But he sets out anyway. The very definition of faith.
It is that faith that has led us here to the beginning of our journey together. We gather this night, to set out together down the road of Lent.
We may feel that we begin in ashes, in a wilderness of ruin. But we hear the prophet’s call, the promise of hope, of renewal, of restoration, of life from the ashes. And we set out.
Joel 2:1–2, 12–17 • Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
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. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”