An Ash Wednesday Commentary

The below is a critical response I had to do for my Bible as Literature class at Washington State University Vancouver with Dr. Wendy Johnson.  Thought it might be a good read.

Carter, N. (2012). Isaiah 58:1-12 homiletical perspective In D. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C (Vol. 2, pp. 2-7). Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.

“Isaiah.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with

Apocrypha. 4th ed. Ed. Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, and Pheme Perkins.

New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

An Ash Wednesday Commentary

I will be writing this CR about the passages from Isaiah. First of all I will start with the background on the prophet Isaiah. Within this book there are three Isaiah’s – First Isaiah in chapters 1-9, second Isaiah in chapters 40-55, and third Isaiah in chapters 56-66. Further, these three Isaiah’s is how the Christian church divides up Isaiah. Isaiah is a highly prophetic text. Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament from Jesus and Isaiah predicts Jesus’ suffering on the cross in Isaiah 53. Christians believe that Isaiah 53 is talking about Jesus as the suffering servant in relation to this passage from Isaiah 53: “4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed”. This text is read during Good Friday services about Jesus’s suffering, it is a part of the Passion narrative that is read on Good Friday and on the Sunday before Good Friday if there is no Good Friday Service. This text is central to being prophetic about Jesus suffering on the cross, this is one of the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures that shows that his death was predicted and that he is indeed our messiah.

Another text that is used in Christian theology is Isaiah 40.3-8. In that passage verse 3 is often quoted at Christian Services in relation to the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday and talking about John the Baptists baptism. And that voice crying out in the Wilderness, according to Christian Theology is John the Baptist. There are hymns also in the church saying prepare the way of the lord within the lyrics. Also vv 7-8 in that same passage is often quoted in Christian worship services as stating that “ 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” This is basically saying that the word of God will always stand true even when anything else doesn’t – that is the evangelical way of interpreting that verse. Isaiah is a prophet that is central to Christian theology due to the fact that it predicts a good amount about Jesus being the messiah. In Isaiah 7.14 it says, “4Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” And in Matthew 1.23 it says, “23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”” That one verse in Matthew is just one of many references in the New Testament from prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures predicts Jesus being the messiah. The prophets are essential to Jesus being our messiah – since those point to him.

Which now brings me to my commentary on Isaiah 58.1-12. This text is a part of the Revised Common lectionary for Protestants for the Ash Wednesday service – this is one of many readings for that service. I will be gaining commentary and insight from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year c, Volume 2. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19;Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21. The concept of fasting for Lent comes from Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness and this passage from Isaiah also talks about fasting. Second Isaiah addresses Israel at the end of their exile. “In Zechariah 7 that Israel’s religious habits have become rote and empty.” “Walter Brueggemann calls it a kind of pseudo-holiness.” So when the Israelites are complaining that God is not hearing their prayers or responding to their fasting – Isaiah confronts them with the “hypocrisy of their humility” within this passage from Isaiah 58. Fasting should never be an end in of itself in relation to spiritual practices. Also fasting should not be a substitute for righteous living either. And Isaiah exhorts them for those very things. Our private lives and public lives are linked, so we should act the same in both. If we do not live righteously in both our public and daily loves, then our spiritual disciplines during Lent and throughout the rest of the year lose their meaning. These spiritual practices should be done not out of self-conceit but out of deep devotion to God.   This text in relation to church where some people are always seeking spiritual practices Isaiah 58 and its “emphasis on righteousness and justice is worth exploring”. “According to Abraham Heschel, there are few things as deeply ingrained in the heart of the faithful as the thought of God’s justice and righteousness.” This is self-evident throughout all of the prophets. This theme is also central to Christ’s preaching and about kingdom living. “Isaiah’s audience is reoriented to the Lord’s definition of fasting that seeks to ‘loose the chains of injustice’, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry (Matthew 25).”Ash Wednesday and Lent are also about reorienting us to Christ. Bringing back in full circle what it means to be a follower of Christ. Lent is a time of self-examination and repentance – reorientation. An Ash Wednesday call to a new kind of fasting oriented to Christ. So whatever someone Catholic, Protestant, or nondenominational chooses a spiritual discipline to use during Lent, the message of Isaiah 58 can help bring new understanding and orientation to the discipline. This text can help someone turn from the cultural thing of giving up something for Lent and instead turning that in to a meaningful act of devotion – reorientation.   Also in relation to this passage it gives a new meaning to fasting instead of just giving up food rather fasting can be giving up something that pollutes our relationship with God.

To conclude, I write about Ash Wednesday and Lent because Lent is central to my walk with Christ. Lent gives me a time to reflect on what I can fast from and what can I reorient myself towards as Isaiah talks about. This is also a challenging passage and reteaches the Christian about spiritual practices and challenges us to do something different with more devotion. Also I chose this passage from Isaiah 58 due to the fact I am missing the Ash Wednesday service at my church – so this serves as a sermon to myself! Further Isaiah 58.3-7 are essential to this new understanding and reorientation of spiritual passages.


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