The Prophets in Lent

In an article for Faith Today Fr Adrian Graffy explores the Lenten lectionary and discovers a widespread use of readings from the Hebrew prophets. The themes of the readings are not limited to conversion and repentance, but frequently anticipate the new life of Easter.

The richness of the lectionary provided for the Church by the Second Vatican Council can be seen not only in the Sunday readings, but also on weekdays, particularly in the ‘strong seasons’ of the liturgical year,such as Lent and Advent. The Lenten weekdays have gospels chosen for their particular theme and first readings taken from the Old Testament to match that theme. On over half of the weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday the first readings are taken from the prophets.

All three of the ‘major prophets’ in the ancient Hebrew scriptures, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are present in the weekday Lenten lectionary, while four of the twelve ‘minor prophets’,Hosea, Joel, Micah and Jonah, also appear.

Words of repentance and conversion

It is well known that the huge book of the prophet Isaiah, made up of sixty-six chapters, is not from the hand of one prophet. The prophetic ministry of the eighth-century prophet Isaiah lies at the heart of the first thirty-nine chapters, while the remaining chapters are attributed to prophets we know as ‘second’ and ‘third’ Isaiah. While in the work of the first Isaiah the call to conversion dominates, it is the promise of salvation which is more prominent in the latter parts of the book.

The clearest example of the preaching of conversion comes on Tuesday of the second week of Lent when excerpts from the first chapter of Isaiah proclaim ‘Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.’

This call for repentance leading to social justice is echoed in the readings for the Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday. Though these are taken from the final chapters of Isaiah they too contain an invitation to conversion, and above all a proper kind of fasting. True fasting is ‘to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor’.

A reading from the prophet Ezekiel on Friday of the first week stresses the Lord’s desire for the conversion of the sinner. Perhaps not surprisingly the clearest call to conversion comes in the reading from the prophet Joel on Ash Wednesday. A communal act of penance is the context of these words. ‘Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again!’ In echoes of the Book of Exodus God is then described as ‘all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent’.

A story of communal repentance and the mercy of Godis found in the extract from the small book of Jonah on Wednesday of the first week of Lent. Despite his reluctance the prophet is God’s instrumentfor bringing about the conversion of the Ninevites.

The confessions of Jeremiah and the Songs of the Servant

A distinct group of prophetic readings in the weekdays of Lent foresee the sufferings of Christ. There are several excerpts from the ‘confessions’ of Jeremiah, his personal outpourings about the persecution he experiences. These readings are heard on the Wednesday of week two, the Saturday of week four, and the Friday of week five. On this last day Jeremiah cries out: ‘I hear so many disparaging me: Terror from every side!’

The tone is similar to that of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, found in the second part of Isaiah and proclaimed during Holy Week, with the climactic reading on Good Friday of chapters 52-53 ‘See my servant will prosper!’ These profound words about unjust suffering and its salvific value are fulfilled in the passion of Jesus.

Words of promise and salvation

Among the finest prophetic poems are the extracts from Hosea which are heard on Friday and Saturday of week three. Hosea speaks of God’s constancy despite the infidelity of Israel. The reading from chapter 14, heard on the Friday, proclaims God’s fidelity: ‘I will heal their disloyalty, I will love them with all my heart, for my anger has turned from them.’

As we enter the fourth week of Lent, and the gospel readings begin to be taken from the Gospel of John, we hear from the two great prophets of the exile, Ezekiel and the second Isaiah. It is these prophets above all who speak of salvation. The readings in Lent are a foretaste of those heard at the Easter Vigil.

On Monday of the fourth week the reading is taken from the penultimate chapter of the book of Isaiah: ‘Now I create new heavens and a new earth and the past will not be remembered.’ The gospel on this day is the second of Jesus’ seven signs, taken from chapter 4 of John. On the following day the prophetic reading is from the penultimate chapter of Ezekiel, which continues the account of the prophet’s final vision (chapters 40-48). Ezekiel experiences the abundant, life-giving water gushing from the rebuilt temple. In the gospel which follows the third johannine sign is proclaimed, the healing of the cripple at the pool of Bethzatha. Easter imagery is once more to the fore. On the Wednesday of the fourth week we return to the second Isaiah: ‘At the favourable time I will answer you.’ The reading concludes with the comparison of the Lord to a woman cherishing the child of her womb: ‘Even if these forget, I will never forget you.’

On the day before Palm Sunday we turn once again to the prophet Ezekiel. The theme is the reunion of the people of Israel and Judah into one nation. There is a cascade of salvation images here: one nation and one king, one shepherd over all, living in the land, a covenant of peace, an eternal covenant. The gospel reading from John which follows contains the prophetic words of the high priest Caiaphas and the evangelist’s explanation that Jesus would die ‘not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God’.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Faith Today.

 

 

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