LENT: Sanctify A Fast, Gather The People, by Thomas Hopko

From The Lenten Spring

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders;
gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber,
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare Thy people, O Lord,
and make not Thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'” (Joel 2:15-17)

The Lenten season is inaugurated in the church with the words of the prophet Joel.  The message is proclaimed in the midst of the congregation: “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly.  Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God; and cry to the Lord,” (Joel 1:14).

The fast is proclaimed because the people have sinned.  They have lost the protection of God because of their offenses.  They have been unfaithful.  They have gone after false gods.  They have served the creature rather than the Creator who is God over all.  Their minds have grown dark.  Their hearts have become hard.  Their necks have grown stiff.  Their bodies have been defiled.  They have lost the joy and gladness that comes from communion with the Lord.  They have all gone astray, every one to his own way.  And the power of wickedness has overcome them.  So every one of them, from the least to the greatest, must return to the Lord.  It is a corporate action, a total effort from which no one is excluded.  It is an act of the church herself.

“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and repents of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)

These words of the prophet concerning the goodness and mercy of the Lord are familiar to those who know the scriptures and participate in the services of the church.  They are first recorded in the Law of Moses, revealed on Sinai itself. (Exodus 34:6)  They are repeated by all the prophets.  They are sung over and again in the psalms at the liturgical gatherings of God’s people.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will He keep His anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor requite us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the Earth,
so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
so the Lord pities those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)

It is before the merciful and gracious Lord that all are called to mourn and weep for their sins.  It is before the Lord who abounds with steadfast love that we are to “rend our hearts,” and not simply our garments.  It is to Him, whose steadfast love is better than life, that we are commanded to return. (See Psalm 65:3.)  He is the father in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son.  He stands waiting in the opened door of His house with robes in His hands, music playing, the table abundantly laid.  He runs to meet His children who return home.  He takes them in His arms and returns them to the joy and gladness of their proper inheritance.  He pours out upon them all the riches of His fatherly goodness.

The Lord answered, and said to His people,
“Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations. . .

“Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!. . .

“Be glad, O sons of Zion,
and rejoice in the Lord, your God;. . .

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.”
(Joel 2:19-26)

The message of Joel ends, as that of all of God’s prophets, with words of restoration and blessing.  It is this that we seek in the Lenten spring.

Rich and fertile was the earth allotted to us,
but all we planted were the seeds of sin,
We reaped the harvest of evil with the sickle of laziness.
We failed to place our evil fruits on the threshing floor of contrition,
So now we beg You, O Lord, the Master of the harvest:
May Your Love become like the wind that blows away the straw of our worthless deeds,
and make us like the precious wheat to be stored in Heaven,
and save us all! (Sunday of the Prodigal Son vespers)

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