This day begins the traditional forty-day fast of Lent, a period designed in the ancient church for the preparation of candidates for baptism. At the celebration of Easter, those who were baptized imitated the example of Jesus in receiving the Spirit of God. The theme of the day’s readings as a whole focuses on the kind of devotion that God intends to be associated with that Spirit.
The First Reading
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
A Day of Destiny
The book of Joel is one of the latest writings in all of biblical Israel’s Scripture. The book crystallizes the image of the “Day of the Lord” that had become familiar in earlier times, casting it as a time of anticipation for the people of God in any age and any circumstance of dire upheaval. Here the theme is joined with one of Israel’s most reassuring images of God, as “gracious and merciful, long on patience and generous with constant love.” Together these images sound a call to repentance in the face of adversity, with confidence that the Lord will remain faithful to promises made over many ages.
- Sound the shofar in Zion; shout the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the earth’s inhabitants quake,
for the Day of the Lord comes—it is near!—
- a day of darkness and doom, a day of cloud and gloom.
Like dawn crawling across the mountains, swarms a large and powerful people:
never in our experience has there been any like this,
nor ever will there be again, throughout all the ages.
- Yet, even now—the word of the Lord:
Turn back to me with all your hearts,
with a fast and weeping and wailing.
- Tear open your hearts, not just your clothes.
Turn back to the Lord your God,
who is gracious and merciful,
long on patience and generous with constant love;
who relents from harsh punishment.
- Who knows? The Lord may turn back and relent,
leaving us a blessing—God’s own offerings of grain and drink.
- Sound the shofar in Zion!
Set a holy fast! Call a sacred assembly!
- Gather the people, prepare a holy conclave;
bring together elders, gather children and nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom abandon his chambers,
and the bride, her dressing room.
- Between the entryway and the altar,
let the priests weep—those who serve the Lord;
let them say, “Take compassion, O Lord, on your people.
Do not subject your heritage to shame, so that foreigners rule over them.
Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Devotion to God Requires Devotion to Others
As Israel sought to establish its national life anew following the two generations of exile in Babylon, this prophecy reminded the nation that a robust life as God’s people calls for more than proper piety. Restoration and renewal will be built on a new commitment to compassion, virtue, and self-giving service. God will accompany those who embrace these values, giving them an enduring legacy.
- Bellow out a cry; do not hold back. Raise your voice like a ram’s horn to proclaim to my people their offense and to the House of Jacob their sins;
- then they will seek me day by day and desire knowledge of my ways.
Like a nation that does right, not abandoning the justice of their God,
let them ask of me right judgments;
let them delight in their nearness to God.
- “Why do we fast,” [they say,] “and you do not see us,
deprive ourselves and you take no notice?”
Look, on your fast day you see to your own interests,
relentlessly driving all your workers.
- Indeed your fasting ends in quarreling and struggle and striking with a wicked fist. Do not fast like that today, if you would make your voice heard on high.
- Is the fast that I choose like this: a day focused on one’s own deprivation?
Is it for folding oneself over like a reed, draping sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast and a day that the Lord wants?
- Is not this the fast that I choose:
release unjust shackles, unstrap the yoke’s harness,
set free the oppressed—you shall demolish every yoke!
- Is it not giving up your food to the hungry,
and that you take in the wandering poor?
Seeing someone naked, you cover them,
rather than look away from your flesh and blood!
- Then your light will break out like the dawn
and your well-being will emerge quickly;
your righteousness will precede you;
the glory of the Lord will surround you.
- Then you will call and the Lord will respond;
you will cry out for help and the Lord will say, “I am here”:
when you remove from among you the yoke,
finger-pointing, and slander;
- when you give of yourself to the hungry
and make reparation for the humiliated;
when your light shines out in the darkness
so that your gloom is like midday.
- The Lord will always guide you and satisfy you in bare wastelands;
he will strengthen your spine and you will be an irrigated garden,
like a spring whose waters never disappoint.
- Your people will rebuild ageless ruins,
you will re-establish the foundations of generations,
and you will be called “repairer of the breach,”
restoring pathways for habitation.
A Prayer for Forgiveness
Thematically appropriate to the beginning of the Lenten season of penitence, Psalm 51 presents King David’s plea for divine forgiveness. Central here is not just David’s desire to be cleansed of past wrong-doings, but also his hope for God’s help so that he might stop sinning and only teach and follow God’s ways. As presented in The Revised Common Lectionary, the psalm ends with a call for contrition rather than animal sacrifice. In the psalm’s full form, however, its final verses—which are excluded here—pray that God rebuild the city of Jerusalem, allowing expiatory sacrifices again to be offered on the Temple’s altar.
To the conductor, a song of David, when Nathan the Prophet came to him after he had relations with Bathsheba.
- Have mercy on me, God, as suits your steadfast love;
according to the greatness of your mercy, wipe away my sins!
- Cleanse me thoroughly of my guilt;
purify me of my sin!—
- for I admit my transgressions;
my sin is ever before me.
- Against you, only you, I have sinned;
I did what is evil in your eyes,
so that your sentence is justified,
and your judgment warranted.
- Indeed, I was birthed guilty;
my mother conceived me sinful.
- Yet you desire the truth about that which is concealed.
Regarding that which is hidden, give me insight!
- Sprinkle me with a hyssop stem to purify me;
cleanse me whiter than snow!
- Make me hear sounds of joy and gladness;
let the bones you crushed rejoice!
- Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all of my guilt!
- Fashion for me a pure heart, God;
renew in me a steadfast spirit.
- Do not banish me from your presence;
do not take from me the spirit of your holiness.
- Let me again enjoy your protection,
and may a willing spirit sustain me.
- I shall teach sinners your ways,
so that transgressors will return to you.
- Save me from bloodshed,
God—God of my deliverance!
My tongue will sing out your righteousness!
- Lord, open my lips,
and let my mouth declare your praise!
- For you do not desire sacrifices,
as I offer them,
burnt offerings do not please you.
- God’s desired sacrifice is a contrite spirit.
God—a contrite and crushed heart
you will not despise.
The Second Reading
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Commendation as a Servant of God
In this reading the Apostle Paul establishes himself as a servant of God and representative of the Messiah. He encourages believers in Corinth to receive God’s grace with fruitfulness. In times of difficulty and unfair treatment, they are to maintain the same manner of godly attributes that Paul himself has upheld throughout his ministry.
On behalf of the Messiah, we make the appeal: “Be reconciled to God!” God made the one who did not know sin to be a sacrifice on our behalf, so that we can embody God’s righteousness in that one.
Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For God says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I helped you.” Look! Now is a favorable time; now is a day of salvation. We do not put a single obstacle in anyone’s way, so that the ministry may not be discredited, but in every detail we establish ourselves as servants of God by great endurance in afflictions: by hardships, distressing situations, beatings, and imprisonments; by riots, labors, sleepless nights, and times of hunger; by purity, understanding, patience, and kindness; by holy Spirit, genuine love, word of truth, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right and left hands. Throughout we are honored and dishonored, slandered and praised; regarded as imposters and yet are honest, as unknown and yet are well known, as dying and yet—look!—we are alive, as punished and yet not killed, as sorrowful but always rejoicing, as poor but making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Matthew’s Gospel presents teaching in regard to religious practice within its Sermon on the Mount, a discourse that brings together Jesus’ teachings on various occasions. The portion of text the Lectionary presents on this day bookends the Lord’s Prayer, which appears in Matthew 6:9-13 (omitted here). Jesus, in Matthew’s presentation, describes the inner attitude of devotion that is consistent with prayer. Written in a setting of fierce competition both within the church and with other religious institutions, this reading from Matthew’s Gospel contrasts the church’s approach to devotion with others’.
“Careful: do not display righteousness in front of people, to be seen! If you do, you have no compensation from your Father who is in heaven. When you give charity, do not trumpet your generosity, as the pretentious do in the congregations and in the streets, to be glorified by people. Trust me, I tell you: they already have their compensation! You, though, when you give charity, your left hand should not even know what your right hand does, so the charity you do is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will make it up to you. And whenever you pray, you shall not be as the pretentious, because they delight to stand up in prayer in congregations and on street corners, to flaunt themselves. Trust me, I tell you: they already have their compensation! But when you pray, enter into your most private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will treasure you.
“When you fast, do not be morose like the pretentious, who put on an expression to parade their fasting. Trust me, I tell you: they already have their compensation! But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting is not apparent to people, but only to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will treasure you. Do not store up valuables on earth, where moth and decay ruin them, and where thieves break in and steal. Instead, store up valuables in heaven, where neither moth nor decay ruin, and where thieves do not break in and steal. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart.”