As Lent begins, we hear the words in the first reading for Ash Wednesday: “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” Folks used to tear their clothes when they were upset or sad. (A sign to others of how bad it was? A cry for help?). But the Prophet Joel wants them to “rend their hearts.” Something inside, presumably where God alone sees it.
This description strikes me as rather violent. The prophet refers to people tearing an otherwise good garment. And he says we should do that to our hearts! Why? Why such a forcefully violent action?
I think it all has to do with resistance. In Stephen King’s bestseller, 11/22/63, after a man discovers a pathway into the past, he attempts to change history. But he soon discovers that the past is very resistant to change. Obstacles appear; people and places have an ominous character about them, threatening his plans. I think King is giving us a powerful metaphor about change.
And the Prophet Joel tells us that God wants us to open up our hearts, to allow the ego to give way to the inner life that God is offering. Lenten practices are things we decide to do or give up, in the hopes that such action may lay bear the vulnerable part of us, the “heart,” the part of us where God is waiting.
My spiritual director usually suggests my Lenten theme; Jesuit Father James Martin has a Jewish friend do the same. Behind such an idea is a notion that our Lent should be less and less an “ego trip” and more of an openness to God. In fact, there’s a built-in contradiction to the Ash Wednesday Scriptures. While Joel orders us to blow a trumpet, Jesus says not to! The liturgy has us mark our foreheads with ashes; Jesus tells us not to change our appearance!
Maybe there’s a healthy tension in this contradiction. We do need signs—for ourselves and others, for reminders and mutual support. But in the end, Lent is between you and God.
God is at work in our heart. Indeed, Lent starts inside, even though we keep it communally as well. For communities, maybe there’s a communal heart that needs to be laid bare so that God’s work can be evident. We do this symbolically on Ash Wednesday and through Lent with the color of the vestments, simple church decorations, and communal activities such as the Way of the Cross.
I always like to dig out T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday” on this day. It’s so evocative of starting up this adventure. The poem has a spring-like quality and a vision of change. May we allow God’s grace to grow in us this Lent!