Rend Your Hearts – Ash Wednesday reflections

“’Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:12-13) 

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, one encounters some reference to people tearing their garments. The context is typically regret, remorse, sadness, conviction, repentance. They have sinned against God and neighbor, have been led to a convicting realization of their transgression, and the outward sign of their inward state is tearing of clothes.

Having outward actions that represent our inward state is not unique to these passages in the bible by any means, of course. We greet friends and family with a hug, kiss, or handshake as a demonstration of the affection we feel for them. It is an outward expression that points to an inward reality. These gestures embody our feelings, connecting our inside with our outside.

Authenticity is Key

The key to all of this, however, is authenticity. Is our outward communication through these actions and gestures faithful or fake? Are we revealing or concealing what is in our hearts?

That is the crux of the issue in the scripture text above. God hammers home the absolute necessity that heart and body be on the same page.

Sometimes the disconnect is due to deliberate concealment. We do not want our insides revealed, so we wear a mask. We perform the outward actions but they are just that—a performance. Maybe it is because of guilt or shame, perhaps even mischief or malevolence. Whatever the reason, we conceal rather than reveal.

Sometimes the disconnect can be attributed to inattention. We grow accustomed to the actions. The words and patterns are familiar to us. This is good because they are a part of us. But the shadow side to this benefit is that we can perform them without full engagement. We say the creed, present our offering, say our prayers, sing our songs, read our scriptures, and check the boxes of religious practice. But through inattention they become wallpaper in our lives, present without standing out. They lose their connection to what is going on inside.

Renovation Work

That we are a temple, a dwelling place for the glory of God, has solid grounding in biblical theology. When Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed for it to be a place where God’s glory and presence dwelt in a unique way. In the New Testament, we see Jesus presented as a new temple, in which God’s glory and presence dwells like no place else. And we find that part of salvation’s large project is for us—“our hearts” is the way we give language to this—to be a temple in which God’s glory and presence dwell in a special way too.

Perhaps we can think of it this way then. If we have placed our faith and trust in Christ for salvation and have therefore been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ, then God is moving in. But he finds that to make this heart a place in which he is fully at home some renovation work is needed. The counter-tops are smudged with the grime of greed. The pipes are clogged with unforgiveness. The walls are weak with the deteriorating effects of pride.

Rend Your Hearts

Lent is a holy season that teaches us about the whole of our Christian journey. The call to repentance reminds us that renovation work is yet needed as Christ makes himself at home in us. And this renovation work requires that the outward expressions of faith match the inward desire of our hearts. And why rend our hearts? To show we’re ready—really ready—for the renovation work of the Spirit.

There’s a wonderful truth about the character of God laying at the foundation of this warning and call: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

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