Rev. Mark Johnson
February 17, 2021

Scripture:  Joel 2:13


Ashes in the ER

  • Working as a chaplain, I spent last Ash Wednesday at Mercy Hospital. Starting in the ER and moving throughout the hospital, we asked nurses, doctors, and support staff if they wanted a blessing and imposition of ashes. To my surprise, I was often met with a deep sense of gratitude and relief as I reminded these folks of their own mortality.
  • “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are somber words reminding us of our own human limitedness. While confronting such realities, what is the origin of such relief and gratitude?
  • The words of imposition come from Genesis 3:19. God is speaking to Adam and recalls the moment that humankind was formed out of the dust of the ground and given the breath of life. From the beginning of Scripture, we are humbled by our human vulnerabilities and dependence.
  • With these humble reminders comes the promise of divine mystery walking alongside us through the trevails of life. Perhaps there is no more needed reminder of God’s providence than a hospital ER with its daily confrontation of human vulnerability, dependence, mortality, grief and loss.

Joel and the Practice of Keriah

  • In Joel, people are faced with a similar sense of grief and loss. The book starts with lamentation over a plague of locusts which has been exacerbated by severe drought, decimated the land, and caused extreme famine.
  • A similar event happened in 2020 with a locust infestation spreading over dozens of countries in Africa and the Middle East while causing severe famine. According to the UN office for Humanitarian Affairs, in Ethiopia alone, 8.6 million people currently face high levels of food insecurity due to the locust infestation, COVID-19, and political displacement.
  • In chapter 2:13, Joel suggests an appropriate reaction or response to such events: “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” He is referring to the Jewish practice of Keriah. Bereaved family members are instructed to tear their clothing, and for some, this includes the additional requirement to “expose the heart,” or tear the fabric from the chest area.
  • Joel admonishes Jews not to rend only fabric but the heart itself, for the external tear is only a symbol or representation of the broken heart within.

The Invitation of Ash Wednesday and Lent

  • Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to confront our experiences of grief and loss over the past year, expose and rend our hearts, thereby turning towards God. For in the words of Joel, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
  • Lent also presents an opportunity to reckon with the ways we have lived over the past year and make amends. Just as Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, we are provided a wilderness opportunity to reflect, amend, and reconnect with God and neighbor. 
  • Our prayer is that we may be vulnerable and honest with ourselves. Acknowledging the many forms of death gives way to life and allows for the possibility of resurrection. 
  • To return to God in humility is what Schleiermacher described as the awakening of our God consciousness, or a feeling of ultimate dependence as experienced in community. The process of confronting grief and loss is accompanied with a recognition that trials and travails of life were never meant to be traversed alone. 

Takeaway and Call to Action:

  • Lent teaches us that the world is fleeting. May this somber reminder be also accompanied by a sense of relief and gratitude. The Good News is that we don’t bear the world on our shoulders and the possibility of life and resurrection amidst apparent death.
  • But for now, my prayer is that we might embrace the sacred wilderness of Lent, repent and believe in the Gospel, and remember we are dust and to dust we shall return. Amen.

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