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.
Rend your hearts and not your garments. Well what the heck does that even mean!? Well good thing I went to seminary and barely survived, I mean studied Hebrew! Well the Hebrew word qara (kaw-rah) actually means to tear, so Joel here is telling us to tear our hearts, and not clothes. Um, no, that would hurt!
But the prophet Joel is talking here in the 2nd chapter about coming to the Lord with fasting, mourning and weeping and to tear your heart and not your clothing. In ancient Israel, tearing your clothing was an act of symbolism, it expressed grief and morning. So Joel is telling the people to come to God when in grief not ripping your clothes in an outward expression of sorrow, but in a inward looking, self reflective, self aware act of submission and mourning.
So we are entering the Lenten season. Christian’s worldwide mark the beginning of this season with Ash Wednesday. A day we make a visible mark on our foreheads with ashes, to remind ourselves of our mortality and need for repentance and look forward to the redemptive work of the cross. It is a beautiful and meaningful day.
I have had the privileged to spend Ash Wednesday the last few years in the health care centers dispensing ashes as part of my work as a health care chaplain.I always feel the Holy Spirit moving on Ash Wednesday. I always find by the end of the day that God is still moving, still speaking to me. I have had some amazingly intimate and divine moments on the past few Ash Wednesdays.
Today was no different. In between the rounding and walking areas of the building with ashes and worship services, I made a visit to a certain resident of my community. This person lost their husband last year during Holy Week to a suicide. Needless to say we have had some deep grief and pain filled pastoral counseling sessions in the months since, and will again as the anniversary comes closer. Today was no different. I impose ashes, and as we hold hands to pray, both with tears in our eyes, she whispered "you are so good at what you do." I was blessed to enter into this woman's grief with her, and together we rended, we tore open our hearts to God. This is the deeply profound and deeply exhausting work of a chaplain.
I was then called, after coming home to debrief and eat dinner, called back to the community to be at the bedside with a family as their father passes. In laying of hands and praying over him, I was able to bless him with Ashes. The meaning of the day came full circle.I rest in and was reminded of the power of Paul's letter to the Romans; where sin increased, Grace abounded more; and nothing in life; NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
What I appreciate the most about Ash Wednesday is it calls us to reflect on our shared frailty and brokenness. We come together and confess our sins, as a community, and visibly display our recognition that we are mere carbon based beings that return to that dirty red clay. (That's a Genesis reference)
Jesus tells us that when we pray or fast, to do it in private, unlike the hypocrites who put their piety on display. It is true, we are making a public, visible mark that we are beginning a time of penitence. Aren’t we kind of like, well the hypocrites? I hope not. But that is a question you must ask yourself as we begin this Lenten journey. Am I personally, in my heart seeking truly to turn to God in prayer and repentance, tearing open my heart to Jesus? Am I looking to the road to the cross and living to be a better person? Are we trying to be a better follower of Jesus? Because if we are to follow Jesus; we must follow the road to the Cross. And that takes a deep, inward reflection on ourselves. And it takes deep inward commitment to others. And we mark ourselves, collectively as individuals, together yet separately, journeying towards Christ knowing full well that we return to the very dust that God breathed life into.
But that is the great thing. We follow a gracious God. A God that took on our brokenness on the Cross of Jesus. And it's the road to that cross, and the resurrection story that we begin to reflect and pray about on Ash Wednesday. We take the time to reflect on the sacrifice and the service of our savior Jesus Christ and to attempt, however much we fail, to live a life that models his grace and love.
But where sin increased, Grace abounded all the more.