Ash Wednesday: The First Day of Lent (Year A), 26 February 2020

February 26, 2020 | by Russell Pregeant

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12 Psalm 51:1-17 2 Corinthians 5:20b -- 6:10 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday has dual emphases—repentance for sin and human mortality, both of which are symbolized by the imposition of ashes. In the Bible, repentance is often signified by the sign-act of wearing sackcloth and dusting oneself with ashes. In the Ash Wednesday service, ashes serve also as a reminder that, as we find in Genesis 3:19, we are made from the dust of the earth, to which our bodies return at death. What unites the two emphases is humility, grounded in both our finitude and our alienation from our creator and fellow creatures. The lectionary selections stress the latter theme and constitute potent calls to reconciliation. The Ash Wednesday sermon is typically short, but the readings are rich sources for a variety of approaches that can be helpful in avoiding bland generalities; and a process-relational perspective can bring some of these to light. In comments that follow, I will focus on the theme of reconciliation in the Second Reading and supplement my points with briefer treatments of the other passages. After that, I will conclude with some brief suggestions for the specific directions a sermon might take.


Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

“Katallegete: Be Reconciled” was the title of the journal of the Committee of Southern Churchmen. This organization, headed by a white Baptist minister named Will D. Campbell, was founded during the 1960s in support of the civil rights movement. Campbell, who was deeply involved in the movement, brought an important perspective to it—a perspective to which I was introduced when I heard him give a talk on the Ku Klux Klan. What he said was not what I expected. Instead of attacking the violence and bigotry of the Klan (which he of course opposed), he stressed that many of the Klan members were, as poor whites, victims of the same system that oppresses African Americans. I later learned that when a Klan leader’s wife was in the hospital, Will plowed the man’s field for him. The heart of his perspective was that Christ died for all persons, bigots included, and that it is necessary to go beyond merely political solutions to racial discrimination and adopt a distinctively biblical model of reconciliation. By this he meant reconciliation both between human beings and God and among human beings—all human beings. This did not prevent him from active opposition to oppressive social and political structures, but it did mean that he was able to include the purveyors of injustice within his circle of concern and stand ready to receive them as sisters and brothers.

The Greek term katallagete, which Campbell appropriated from 2 Corinthians 5:20b, means “be reconciled.” In that verse it refers specifically to human reconciliation with God, but for Paul, to be reconciled to God necessarily entailed reconciliation with one’s fellow human beings. To get that point, however, we have to read the lectionary selection as part of a longer section of the letter that runs from 5:11 to 6:13. Here Paul describes his own ministry as focused on reconciliation between God and human beings and makes this the basis for his appeal for reconciliation between himself and a congregation with which he has had serious differences. At 5:14, Paul stresses that Christ has died for all, which means that “all have died”—died to sin, that is, and thus made into “a new creation” (5:17). Then, describing his own ministry as one of reconciliation (5:18), he urges the congregation to be reconciled to God (5:20b) by accepting God’s grace. When in 6:1 he asks his readers not to “accept the grace of God in vain,” he is equating acceptance of his ministry with reception of that grace. And as a way of validating the authenticity of his ministry he offers an extended account in 6:3-10 of the sufferings he and his evangelistic team have endured for the sake of their mission. Then in 6:11 he makes a final appeal for reconciliation by declaring his heart open to those from whom he has been alienated and asks for open hearts on their part as well. The whole section is thus a testimony to the inextricable relationship between divine-human reconciliation and reconciliation among human beings. And because Christ died for all—well, “all” really does mean “all.”

Process-relational thought, and most particularly Charles Hartshorne’s explicit panentheism, is particularly well-suited to articulate this over-all point. Understanding God as the personal being inclusive of all that is, it promotes a strong sense of the relatedness of all beings in God. Thus divine-human reconciliation and reconciliation among human beings, while not strictly reducible to one another, are inseparable and, in fact, two aspects of the very same thing. Just as 1 John 4:20 warns that “those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (NRSV), so 2 Corinthians makes clear that those who claim relationship with God while nurturing their hatred of others are seriously compromising their professed faith. We can also say, from our contemporary perspective, that those who nurture good will toward their fellow human beings are in some degree at one with God, whether or not they actually acknowledge God. 

For Paul, however, this dual process of reconciliation is not a “natural” possibility. Although available to all, it is tied specifically to participation in Christ, by whose death and resurrection a new creation has come about (2 Cor 5:17-18). Apart from Christ, the world remains under the power of sin. In Christ, however, there is a “new creation”—“everything old has passed away” and “everything has become new.” Part of what this means for Paul is that God no longer counts our trespasses against us (2 Cor 5:19), but this is only part of the story—and a part that we sometimes allow to obscure another aspect. Although this latter verse articulates the juridical aspect of Paul’s thought (our being accounted righteous because of Christ’s sacrifice), the “new creation” theme in verses 17-18 expresses its participatory (or “mystical,” to use Albert Schweitzer’s term) dimension. To be “in Christ” is to participate in his faithfulness (pistis) and thus empowered to act differently. It is not merely to be forgiven; it is to be made new by being transferred from one sphere of influence (or “force field”) to another—that is, from the domain of sin to that of righteousness . And this sense of newness is most powerfully expressed in verse 21, where Paul asserts that in Christ we “become the righteousness of God.” 

This is a rather cryptic and provocative notion—to become the righteousness of God! But if we take seriously the phrase “in Christ” as expressing the participatory/mystical aspect of Paul’s theology, we can see that it is a rich and powerful testimony to the salvific action of God in human life. The New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann defines Paul’s concept of the righteousness of God as “salvation-creating power.” Thus to “become the righteousness of God” is to be incorporated into that power and be permeated by it and thus empowered to do the good. And although Paul tends to limit this possibility of incorporation into God’s saving power to those explicitly naming Christ as their savior, at some points he transcends this exclusivism and implies a broader understanding. In Romans 4:4-5, for example, he acknowledges that the (non-christological) faith of Abraham is reckoned as righteousness, and in Romans 5:18 he states that Christ’s “act of righteousness” led to “justification and life for all.” And this broader understanding is something that process-relational theology is, once again, particularly well-suited to articulate. From this perspective, God is universally active in the world, forgiving sin and empowering persons to do the good. As we find in John 1:3-4, Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the divine Logos, through whom the world came into being and who is “the light of all people.” And at this point process-relational thought is helpful in yet another way, by providing a hermeneutic that calls for interpreting some lines of scriptural logic in light of others. In this case, Paul’s christological exclusivism is called into question by the universalistic elements in his own thought as well as other passages in scripture.

To summarize, now, in 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Paul operates under the assumption that the world remains in the clutches of evil and human beings are under the power of sin and are therefore alienated both from God and from one another. Through Christ, however, God has unleashed a salvation-creating power in which those who are incorporated into Christ participate, and this salvation brings with it reconciliation on both levels—that between God and humanity and that among human beings. This state of reconciliation represents a new possibility, at odds with a world permeated by sin; those in Christ are a “new creation.” We can thus see how the dual themes of sin and death, or alienation and finitude, can fit together. To link salvation to reconciliation is to understand sin primarily as separation—from God and from one another. From a process-relational perspective, we can understand sin as acting as if we are autonomous, self-enclosed beings rather than parts of a whole, responsible to that whole and all its parts. It is, in short, to deny our finitude. We are only parts of the whole. To confess our sin is thus to confess that false sense of individual self-sufficiency; and to seek forgiveness is to seek reconciliation in the form of re-incorporation into that whole. And although some strains of biblical teaching limit the possibility of reconciliation to those explicitly adhering to Christianity, a process-relational reading of scripture invites us to think more broadly. The reconciliation sought from this perspective would involve reaching across religious boundaries as well as those of race, class, gender, gender identity, and sexuality. A sense of human solidarity is possible for all, and true solidarity must include all.


First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12

The selection from Joel begins with a reference to the “day of the LORD,” an expression referring to an expected dramatic divine intervention in which God brings judgment against God’s enemies and salvation to God’s people. The earliest biblical occurrence of the phrase is in Amos 5:18-20, where the prophet declares that the expected intervention will be “darkness and not light” because Israel itself will be held accountable for its sins of economic injustice and hypocritical worship. Likewise in Joel 2:1-2, the day of the LORD will be bad news for the chosen people themselves—“a day of darkness and gloom”—because of the people’s sin. The second segment of the reading, however, is a stringent call to repentance suggesting that in the face of such repentance, God, who is in fact “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” might relent and forego the intended punishment. Interestingly, although the passage counsels sign-acts of fasting, weeping, and mourning, it relegates these external acts to secondary status with the prescription, “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” It thus has points of contact both with Amos’s condemnation of hypocritical worship practices (Amos 5:21-24) and Matthew’s ridicule of “showy” acts of piety in the lectionary selection. 

The alternate first reading, Isaiah 58:1-12, also stresses the inadequacy of external acts of piety (58:5). It goes beyond the Joel selection, however, by naming the “fast” that God truly desires as specific acts of justice on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, and the naked. It can therefore serve as a powerful corrective to our American tendency to neglect collective sins in the social sphere and over-emphasize individual acts of dishonesty, sexual immorality, and personal injury. In doing so, it has a point of contact with the process-relational theme of the interrelatedness of all things in God. How we act in the socio-political sphere is an important indicator of our relationship to the whole/God that has effects, whether we recognize them or not, upon other individuals in our communities and all with whom we share the planet. Nor should we overlook the fact that God’s judgment in both Isaiah and Joel (as in the prophetic books generally) is issued not just upon individuals but upon collective entities as such.


Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In its context in the Gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) is a description of life in the dawning realm of heaven, into which people enter when they follow Jesus. The lectionary selection follows a subsection that runs from 5:17 to 5:48, which illustrates Jesus’s approach to the Jewish Law. The demand for a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:18) is a demand for wholeness—that is, for action that issues from the depths of one’s being as opposed to surface obedience. In 5:21-48, Jesus contrasts traditional teachings on specific issues with his own understanding of what the Law requires, and in chapter 6 he applies the notion of a “higher righteousness” to the traditional practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Here again, he probes beneath surface actions and addresses a person’s fundamental motivation. Presupposing the validity of all three practices, in each case he contrasts actions performed to gain the approval of human beings with actions performed out of devotion to God. 

This is a point that the final verses, 19-21, make by contrasting earthly treasures with heavenly ones. To seek human approval is to value earthly treasures, but pleasing God is a pursuit of heavenly treasures. That Jesus makes use of the concept of reward at all, however, might seem to play into a transactional understanding of obedience to God. Is seeking a reward from God morally different from seeking human approval? Are we not in each case ultimately seeking something for ourselves? To think this way, however, is to fall into the trap of thinking of God as simply one being alongside other beings, only more powerful. And here again, process-relational thought can help to clarify the matter. If we think of God as the self-transcendent whole who is the source of all being, then seeking God’s approval is not at all like seeking human approval. It is qualitatively, not merely quantitatively different. To seek God’s approval is to desire to be at one with the universe, to be in synch with reality, to fulfill one’s true human nature. And from this perspective, heavenly treasures belong to an order of being fundamentally different from those of earth.

There is no doubt, in light of Matthew 5:20, that the phrase “the hypocrites” in 6:2, 5, and 16 is a reference to the scribes and Pharisees. It is important, however, for the preacher to avoid reinforcing the anti-Jewishness that has played such a destructive role in Christian history and is still with us today. One approach to this problem would be to point out that the sins attributed to the scribes and Pharisees are not Jewish sins but are rather universal human sins, and the primary function of the criticism of these Jewish leaders is to address hypocrisy within the Christian community: “do not be like the hypocrites. . .”!


Psalm 51:1-17

More than any of the other selections, Psalm 51 expresses a deeply-felt sense of personal guilt and a burning desire for God’s mercy and for a restored relationship to God. It also complements the readings from Matthew, Joel, and Isaiah in pressing beyond external acts of repentance to address one’s fundamental motivation.


Sermon Suggestions

  1. “Becoming the Righteousness of God.” One approach to an Ash Wednesday sermon would be to focus on 2 Corinthians 5:21 with an emphasis on sin and the denial of human finitude and reference back to the phrase “in Christ” in 5:17. The preacher might note two ways of confronting our finitude. One is the narcissistic route—denying it by trying to draw everything into ourselves and treating our self-interest as if it were identical with the common good. The gospel alternative, however, is to understand ourselves as parts of the cosmic whole. To be “in Christ” is not to dissolve the self but to re-define it, which would reverse the narcissistic approach. To be “in Christ” is to let our personal life-projects be defined by the common good, rather than vice-versa. And as Christians we can do this by giving ourselves over to the God we know in Christ—that is, by giving up our attempts at self-justification and participating in Jesus’s own righteousness, which is to say, allowing our lives to be permeated by the force-field of love that he has created.
  2. “Rend Your Hearts and Not Your Clothing.” A sermon based on Joel 12:13 and the gospel reading might focus on the theme of human wholeness. The biblical writers lived long before the psychological revolution, with its emphasis upon inwardness versus outwardness. They did, however, think in terms of a person’s fundamental motivation, which they expressed by attending to the actions of a person’s mouth, tongue, lips, etc. We can therefore say that they had a strong sense of the need for wholeness in one’s relationships to other persons and to God. We can see this very clearly in Deuteronomy 6:5, which commands love of God with all of one’s heart, soul, and might.  The preacher might thus make use of the passages from Joel and Matthew to challenge the congregation to reflect on what true repentance is—not simply external sign-acts such as the reception of ashes and also not simply ticking off specific aspects of one’s behavior that could stand improvement, but fundamental re-orientation of one’s life. One specific way of issuing this challenge might be to ask the congregants to consider what it is that they hold back in their commitment to God—the hatred they harbor for individuals, political and economic opinions, business practices, use of financial resources, etc. It could be important, also, to ask whether the external acts we associate with Ash Wednesday and Lent are helpful in fostering true repentance or actually deceive us into substituting the symbols for the real thing.
  3. A third approach to Ash Wednesday would be to bring the individualistic aspects of the readings into play with the communal. Some of us focus on our shortcomings in our personal behavior and personal relationships to the exclusion of our participation in social sins through our support for unjust policies in the spheres of economic and politics. Others of us do the opposite. I can envision a sermon that would stress the unity of our inward and outward journeys with God that would focus on the theme of human wholeness.

Russell (Russ) Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus at Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, where he taught a variety of courses, including New Testament, Old Testament, Religion and Politics, and Contemporary Theological Issues. He was also frequently Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. A native of Louisiana, he is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and has served as an associate pastor in New Orleans and as an interim pastor in Needham, Massachusetts. He now lives in Clayton, Georgia with his wife, the Rev. Sammie Maxwell. Russell is the author of nine books, most recently For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision (2016) and Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons (2011). He has also completed a second edition of an earlier book on process-relational theology, Mystery without Magic, which is now under consideration for publication.