Yesterday was the official start of Lent. Depending on your faith tradition, perhaps you marked it with ashes and fasting…perhaps you took some special time for prayer…perhaps you decided to give something up for the next 40 days, or add something into your faith life…or perhaps you didn’t even realize it was Ash Wednesday and don’t observe Lent.

I grew up in the United Methodist church; we had an Ash Wednesday service, and while it wasn’t obligatory to give up anything for Lent, I usually did as a teen. That tradition got away from me when I had small children, but in recent years I’ve taken to viewing the season of Lent as one meant for contemplation; one meant for dwelling on the sacrifice our Lord made for us and preparing ourselves for it; one meant for emulating through some form of fasting of my own the 40 days He fasted in the wilderness before beginning His public service, in the hopes that it will prepare my heart for the next year of service to Him.

This is the passage I find myself contemplating as a new season of Lent begins:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.
13 Rend your hearts and not your garments,
    and turn back to the Lord, your God.
For he is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger, rich in kindness,
    and always prepared to relent from punishing.
~Joel 2:12-13

The above-quoted passage from Joel is the liturgical reading for Ash Wednesday, and I think it’s a great one for speaking to the purpose of the season. It isn’t about foregoing chocolate. It isn’t about whether or not you eat meat on Fridays, per se.

It’s about our hearts. It’s about not just looking at the sin around us, but about admitting the sin within us. It’s about ripping those hearts to pieces and laying them before God on the altar.

Rend your hearts.

Rend is a word we don’t use much these days, so it’s easy to just skip right over it, knowing it means “to tear.” But it’s more than that. According to Merriam-Webster, rend means:

1: to remove from place by violence
2 : to split or tear apart or in pieces by violence
3 : to tear (the hair or clothing) as a sign of anger, grief, or despair
4 a : to lacerate mentally or emotionally
   b : to pierce with sound
   c : to divide (something, such as a nation) into contesting factions

This thing we’re called to do to our hearts…it’s not a gentle process. It’s not easy. It’s not a matter of going to a service or jotting down a note to yourself. This rending isn’t about saying, “Oh, right. Sorry, God.”

It’s violent. It’s painful. It’s destructive.
It’s supposed to be.

Why? Because being penitent means breaking apart the stubbornness inside us, cracking open the walls we’ve built around our sin to keep others (or ourselves) from judging us on it. Being penitent means shattering each and every thing that stands between us and God…and then laying those pieces before him as our offering.

This is what God calls us to do. Not just during Lent of course, but all the time. Whenever we become aware of something standing between us. Whenever His Church has stumbled or faltered and made the world leer at God because of us.

Wait, what?

That’s right. When you look at the Old Testament calls to penance, they aren’t just calling the idol-worshipers to repent–they’re calling the faithful to repent too. On behalf of their neighbors, sure, but also for their own sakes. Because we rise and fall together. We sink or swim together. We cannot go merrily about our way and blame everyone else for all the trouble in the world. We need to repent for every word we speak that we shouldn’t, and for every silence we hold when we should speak. We need to repent for every time we judged someone as undeserving of redemption.

The other week in church, the pastor said something that stuck with me. “We are called to judge–yes, we are. We are called to name sin for what it is…and then to judge the sinner as worthy of redemption.”

Do we? Do we look at our enemies and call them “Beloved of God!”? Do we try to turn them toward the truth because we love them and want them to be saved? Or do we just want to stop them?

There are 39 traditional days of fasting between now and the holiest day of the year, when Christ defeated death and the grave and sin. How are we going to spend them?

Are we going to spend those days living for ourselves…or for Him?

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