Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18  +  2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
March 1, 2017

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin….”

In today’s First Reading is a verse that’s also chanted within one of the antiphons for the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes.  “Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, stand between the porch and the altar and weep and cry out: Spare, O Lord, spare your people”.  This sentence speaks to the Old Testament priest’s role among God’s People.  First, it reveals that the Old Testament priest physically stands between the porch and the altar—between God’s People and the place of sacrifice to God—to act as the Prophet Joel describes.

There, the Old Testament priest weeps and cries out on behalf of God’s sinful people.  While this weeping and crying is not part of his official “job description”, which in fact centers on the offering of sacrifice, these actions are clearly bound up with the priest’s role as mediator.  This is true because the sins of God’s People are the reason that he stands where he does:  between them and the Lord God, weeping, crying, and finally offering sacrifice.

Yet while this Old Testament background is important, the Church proclaims this verse from the Prophet Joel today in order to point our attention to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

One phrase in particular from today’s Second Reading forces us to reckon with the depth of Jesus’ priesthood.  What does Saint Paul mean when, speaking about God the Father and the Son, he states that “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin”?  This saving truth reminds us about three distinct forms of humility that Jesus accepted for our salvation, by which He stands between sinful man and the divine Father.

First, we need to reflect upon God the Son humbling Himself to become human at the Annunciation.  Jesus stands between God and man as True God and true man.  For scriptural meditation on this saving mystery during Lent, we might use the prologue of St. John’s Gospel account or the canticle of Christ’s humility found in the second chapter of Philippians.

Then, more than thirty years after His conception, this divine Word made Flesh offered up His life on the Cross.  We need to reflect upon Jesus’ humility on Calvary.  Upon the Cross, Jesus is not an Old Testament priest, crying and weeping and offering a dumb animal in sacrifice.  In humility, the Word made Flesh sacrifices His own Body and Blood, soul and divinity.  To reflect on this saving mystery, we might use the Passion narrative from any of the four Gospel accounts.

But be careful!  Within this second form of Jesus’ humility is a third:  a mystery that we must not underestimate.  Again, in speaking about the Father sending His divine Son to save us, the Apostle declares:  “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin”.

Often when we meditate upon the Passion of the Christ—say, for example, during the Stations of the Cross—we are impressed by how awfully man’s sins affect Jesus.  We might imagine the Cross as “containing” our sins, so that the physical weight of Jesus’ heavy cross symbolizes the spiritual weight of all mankind’s sins.  Or we might imagine each lash from the Scourging at the Pillar as representing an individual sin.  But while those images may help us meditate upon the meaning of the Passion, St. Paul is saying something even more profound.

God the Father made His divine Son “to be sin”:  not only to carry sin, or be wounded by sin, but to be made sin.  Jesus, who from before time began was true God, stands not only in the place of sinners, but in the place of sin.  This is where He offers sacrifice as a new and everlasting priest.  His stance between merciful grace and man’s sins brings together both in Himself, where the former destroys the latter, for us men and for our salvation.