Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17 2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Lament is called for on this day. There are some interesting contrasts and balances being addressed between the communal and the individual. The reading from Joel is a call for the whole community to gather together, to lament together, and to plead to God for mercy together. The trumpet is to sound to gather everyone together, from the aged to the children, bridegrooms and brides. In the midst of this communal lament is a reminder of personal "buy-in": "rend your hearts and not your clothing" in verse 13 reminds us of what is really at stake. We are not to gather with the community to lament because the community is gathering, but because we repent. In the midst of the call to real and personal repentance in the midst of the community is the statement of faith and reminder of God's promised mercy: "Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing" (v. 13).
Even for congregations where the appointed psalm for the day is not often read, Ash Wednesday is a day when we generally encounter Psalm 51. It may be read or chanted or sung in any number of musical settings. This psalm is a psalm of personal lament and is written in a very personal tone: "Create in me a clean heart, O God" and "Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my offenses, and my sin is ever before me" are just a few examples of the prevalence of the personal pronoun in this psalm. Because of its historical and current use in corporate worship, however, this individual message becomes a communal one. We say the words "create in me" and in some way we are also praying that God would create clean hearts in all of us. We are praying together with our sisters and brothers. In addition, the closing verses of the psalm remind us that the practice of repentance is nothing without the fact of repentance: "The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a troubled and broken heart, O God, you will not despise" (v. 17).
The reading from 2 Corinthians does not play much with individual and corporate repentance, nor with how that repentance happens. Rather this is the promise of God's faithfulness throughout: "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" (6:2). God's promised future comes through clearly and is...