“Rend your hearts, not your garments”

This week, of course, we embark on the arduous journey of Lent. It is truly the most difficult discipline that is still widely and popularly exercised among the Church.

As a point of clarity, Lenten moderations of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are not meant to be exclusive to the liturgical season. Such acts of penance are encouraged every Friday throughout the year, but no longer observed as a law (even though each Friday is a day of penitence in the Universal Church according to Canon 1250 of the Code of Canon Law).

As far as the penitential practices we’re called to observe, I’ll merely say that we are to refrain from some goods of the world as a practice in learning to fill those hungers with the goods of the Spirit. If we prefer eternal life with God, we exercise this preference by denying ourselves some of the comforts of earthly life by choice, not coercion.

What I will focus on, instead of “what should I give up?” is a particular phrase I find to be strong, convicting, and instructive of the kinds of business we should be about during Lent.

In the first reading this Wednesday, we hear Christ say to us, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13a) The fasting, weeping, and mourning we can simplify generally as penance — or more properly as sorrow for sin and the reparation we should seek to make anyhow.

The words within this exhortation that strike at my heart though, is the phrase, “rend your hearts, not your garments.” That word ‘rend’ is one we use all too seldom, I’d argue, just as a fan of linguistic expressions. I’ll first approach that word specifically, then the two components about hearts as opposed to garments.

To “rend” is to rip or tear violently, as in grief, or anger, or despair.  There’s probably some irony in that the past tense is “rent,” but I’ll leave that alone. The point is that rending is not a gentle, or moderate, or particularly rational behavior. When something is rent, little can be done to repair it, or regain its former beauty or utility.

Therefore, we should be truly shaken at the call of Christ to return in penitence, violently forsaking the ways and means of the world.

The path of true Lent in our lives should be littered with the remnants of our old, false and stony hearts. The Holy Spirit’s invitation is to tear apart the lied-to, bankrupt selves we put on in the world to curry favor with our peers or to try so desperately to fit in and, leaving it behind, charge headlong with our whole, true hearts to our God who is “gracious and merciful…slow to anger, rich in kindness and relenting in punishment.” (Joel 2:13b)

However, we are warned of the temptation of falsehood, even in our penitence. The rending of garments is a behavior we see from an individual most unworthy of imitation. The high priest, in his efforts to prosecute and condemn Jesus by false testimony, did exactly this when Christ told him the truth of the Son of Man’s coming. Unable to accept, the high priest claims Jesus’s words to be blasphemy, and in rage tears his robes.

Our rending is not to be a show, or merely superficial, or worse yet, fake. First, the disciplines that we must undertake should be done modestly, and without fanfare; there is no need to make it clear that we are abstaining from meat. Second, in the disciplines we choose, the things we “give up,” we ought to do so without complaining or boasting. Finally, we must make them real sacrifices, and not something we do out of obligation. Obligation is a poor spiritual motivator when compared with real affection.

The high priest of our faith now is Jesus, the trustworthy one, and at his words, we can “behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:2) Instead, as Jesus instructs his disciples (hint: these days, that’s us!) this tearing open of our calloused hearts takes place on the inside.

As we enter the observance of Lenten, outward selfdenial, let me be just one voice encouraging you to look to the interior. Do not let this Lent, truly a holy season, be one wherein others “observe” your disciplines. Tear open your hardened heart before God; bleed your sin, your hurt, your pain, your sorrow, and your loss before him. Shed the false dignity that keeps you from being truly, really yourself before God’s tender, unrelenting love.

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