The word of the day is “turn.” Today, the Orthodox observe a “little Lent” before Great Lent. No liturgy is celebrated today in the Orthodox Church, and there is no Gospel or Epistle reading but readings from Joel. Other Christians are observing Ash Wednesday. But whether today is a “Little Lent” or an Ash Wednesday, in our reading of Joel 2:12-26, we hear the urgent cry, “Turn to me with all your heart with fasting and wailing and with mourning…” (vs. 12). These stirring words admonish us to take the upcoming Lenten season with ultimate seriousness. There is no time to delay. There is no more room for spiritual laxity. The prophet announces the time of grace and judgment has come upon us.
Today our reading goes back to the 700 years before Christ. The People of God are facing two catastrophes, a plague of locusts and a military threat from a foreign power. The prophet discerns that these two disasters portend the “Day of the Lord,” a day of darkness and gloom (vs. 2:11), fire (vs. 2:3), and stars hiding their brightness (vs. 2:10).
Wailing, Mourning, and Weeping
In the face of this time of calamity, young and old are to fast and pray for God’s mercy. The people must wail and mourn (vs. 12). The priests must weep before the altar and pray, “O Lord spare Your people; do not give your inheritance to reproach…” (vs. 2:17).
By turning to the Lord, the people are to turn back the judgment of God. They must call on the Lord’s mercy and compassion, His longsuffering and plenteous mercy (vs. 13). They should repent so that the Lord will repent of His wrath and “change His mind” and visit the land with kindness instead of punishment.
Rending Your Hearts, Not Your Garments
The prophetic Word to “rend your hearts and not your garments” (vs.13) has special meaning. Tearing one’s clothes is an ancient sign of distress among God’s People. Jacob tore his clothes when his sons told him that Joseph was dead (Genesis 37:34). David did the same when he learned that King Saul was dead (2 Samuel 13;31), and the longsuffering Job tore his robe when he realized his children were dead (Job 1:18-20).
“Rending one’s garments” is, therefore, a sign of mourning. Perhaps, symbolically it is an exposure of the heart, an open expression of grief. Thus, it is a sign of sorrow for sin. However, the prophet says that repentance must be more than an outward ritual. We must indeed feel like our heart is torn in two when we remember our sins.
Today’s reading places us in the same spiritual position as the people of Joel’s day. On Sunday, we heard of the fearful judgment of God. Now, our reading teaches us how we might respond to this dread message of the seriousness of our sins. But something more than this instruction is added to the ancient prophecy. Today as we turn for the mercy of the Lord, we recall that He has already turned aside God’s judgment by bearing our sins on the Cross. Thus today, we repent in full confidence that He is ready to forgive our sins and able to heal our hearts when we turn to him.
The “Apostica,” the hymn at the end of today’s Matins, sums up the mood of the urgency of our repentance as we come close to the beginning of Great Lent. It gives us reason to wake up and arm ourselves for the spiritual warfare that lies ahead.
“In vain do you rejoice in not eating, my soul! ⁄ You abstain from food but are not purified from passions! ⁄ If you have no desire for improvement, ⁄ you will be despised as a lie in the eyes of God! ⁄ You will be compared to evil demons, who never eat! ⁄ If you continue in sin, you will perform a useless fast: ⁄ therefore, remain in constant warfare, ⁄ that you may stand before the crucified Savior, ⁄ or rather that you may be crucified with him who died for your sake: ⁄⁄ Remember me, Lord, when you come in your kingdom!” (“Apostica “ for Matins March 2), “ematins powered by “AGES”).
May we give heed to the prophecy of Joel and the message of today’s “Apostica” sung during Matins. And may we prepare ourselves for the struggle to “turn around” from our sinful ways and to tear open our hearts to receive the mercy of Christ.