Monday, March 4, 2019

Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn

Ash Wednesday 2019

What are you giving up for Lent? I am quite certain, that this would be the question on the minds of many Catholics, a question that would be certainly posed by others. Be assured, I am not trying to give you a guilt trip. On the one hand, giving up something for Lent seems to be a fine way of spending Lent, some form of self-sacrifice in preparation for Easter. But on the other hand, any visible sacrifice on my part may be a form of self-aggrandisement, publicising my achievement and thus negating any spiritual benefit I might have gained by giving up something. As everyone is devouring their piece of steak, I smugly order a bowl of salad. So today, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Church challenges us with a more important question: what is the point of penitential practices during Lent? And is there anything that I can do to make my Lent more meaningful, to bring about real change in myself?

Let’s begin with the first reading. “Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again.” These are the beautiful words of the Prophet Joel in the first reading, and indeed they are the inaugural words of scripture for this Mass, the first words the church offers us this Lent. As such, they are the foundation for the message God wishes to communicate to us this Lent. Here and throughout this prophetic book, the Prophet Joel is doing what prophets do best. He is calling the people to conversion by making them aware of their sins and pointing them to ideal action, “let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn!”

Traditionally, the people of Israel would rip or rend their clothing to signify mourning. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph, when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died. Even today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts (which is known as “keriah”) if the deceased is one of their parents.  But Joel is calling the people to not just ritually acknowledge their sins, but to mourn their sins—to grieve for their broken relationship with God—in not simply through outward ways, but inwardly as well. To encourage the people’s conversion, the prophet Joel is not calling them to strengthen their resolve through rituals of penance, he’s telling them to take these penitential rituals straight to their hearts, to the very core of their beings. They are not told to demonstrate repentance on the outside, but in their hearts and souls.

In the New Testament, the rending of garment seems to be an outward expression of indignation at sacrilege and blasphemy. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, Saints Paul and Barnabas rent their garments when the people of Lystra began to worship them. But in the gospels, the High Priest, Caiaphas, rent his garments when Jesus affirmed that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. There is profound irony here as in the rest of the gospel; instead of Jesus committing blasphemy, it is the High Priest who expresses blasphemy against Him. Furthermore, Caiaphas had violated the Levitical prohibition against a high priest rending his garments. This is in sharp contrast to the seamless simple garment of our Lord that was left intact at the moment of His crucifixion. St Bede the Venerable would recognise the symbolism in this action. In the Old Testament priesthood was to be rent on account of the wickedness of the priests themselves. But the solid strength of the Church, which is often called the garment of her Redeemer, can never be torn asunder.

There was one more “rending” that occurred during the Passion. This was the rending of the veil in the temple that separated the holy place from the holy of holies when Our Lord died on the Cross. That curtain which veiled God’s presence in the temple might be called His garment. God Himself rent His own garment, as if weeping the death of His Son. Yet that most holy death was also the sacrifice pleasing to the Father. In union with the Crucified one, we too should rend our own hearts in preparation to receive the gift of eternal life.

Keeping in mind the command to break our hearts instead of merely tearing our garments, let us now turn to the gospel. Our Lord here gives us pointers as to how to conduct ourselves when we do acts of piety or righteousness, namely, giving alms, fasting and praying. When we do these acts, our Lord is asking us to do them without fanfare. He places the emphasis on our motivation: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.” Rather, our actions must be done in “secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” He reminds us that the intended audience is not men, but God. Our actions are meant to please God, not seek favour in the eyes of men. Such outward actions without interior conversion would be pointless. Therefore, these acts must spring from the heart and go hand in hand. Giving to the needy without prayer and fasting lacks a spiritual dimension. Prayer without fasting and giving to the needy is an exercise in self-expression and wishful thinking. Fasting without charity and prayer becomes self-centered physical conditioning. Pope Francis tells us in one of his homilies on this day “that conversion is not a matter reducible to outward forms or vague intentions, but engages and transforms one’s entire existence from the centre of the person, from the conscience.”

These practices are never goals in and of themselves, but instead are tools, working like ice picks to crack open our frozen icy hearts, levers to pry them open, so that we can look inside ourselves and see our deepest longings and fears for what they really are. Each Lenten ascetic practice—denying oneself meat, or luxury, or treats—helps us to put our lifestyles and desires into perspective and creates a space for God to enter. Having created a space, we must allow God to come into our lives and into our hearts: here is where Lenten practices of daily prayer and reading scripture are important. Take some time each day to pray, breaking open the monotony of the everyday to let God in to your life.

Finally, let this also be a season of loving. Very often, making sacrifices and performing penances can put us in a bad mood. Rather, than purifying us and helping us to grow in virtue, we end up becoming grouchy, irritable and even judgmental of others whom we believe are not as holy as we are. The way of loving requires an openness and vulnerability, a letting in of the stranger and the unknown, and a giving away parts of ourselves that we may rather keep. In short, to love as Christ loves, we must be willing to love to the extent of allowing our hearts to be broken. And becoming like Christ is not a one-time event, it is being constantly remade in Christ in our daily lives and in all aspects of our lives. The penitential season of Lent is not about slow progress to a singular moment of conversion; rather, it is a process of constant conversion, constant rending, and constant breaking. The rituals of Lent, such as giving something up or marking our foreheads with ashes, do not in and of themselves, mark our conversion moment. Instead, they are habits of ongoing conversion: allowing us to break open our hearts and give them over to God. When shall we begin? The answer is now! As St Paul reminds us in the second reading, “Now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation!”

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