“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
Joel 2:12-13 (NRSV)
Ash Wednesday has got to be one of the most frightening ideas for anyone who was not raised in the traditions of the Catholic church. Seriously, who goes to church in order for a priest to smear ashes on their foreheard in the shape of a cross that you wear for the rest of the day? Wherever you go, you will more than likely get a fair share of funny looks or people pointing out that you’ve had a horrible failure with your morning face cleaning routine. Who really wants to take the time to explain how it represents the biblical tradition of mourning and repentance with sackcloth and ashes (see Daniel 9:3 KJV) or that it serves as a reminder of, “thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,” ala Genesis 3:19? How crazy would you have to be to be obviously marked for a whole day? People talk about wearing their heart on their sleeve, how about wearing your cross on your foreheard? That’s not just scary…that’s frightening and probably just a little macabre. Can’t we just skip all this and get to Easter already? I’d take bunnies and colored eggs over having to wear an ash cross on my forehead any day.
Like skipping past the ashes of mourning and repentance in Ash Wednesday to the spring suits and frilly hats of Easter, there’s a word in that verse in Joel that I want to skip over when I read it and just focus on the “steadfast love” and “relents from punishing” part. I like those words. So warm and fuzzy and gracious. But…there’s that word…sitting in the middle. If words had eyes I imagine they would be be bloodshot and staring right at me.
“…rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Looking up the definition of rend does not do much to soothe my spirit. Merriam Webster defines “rend” by saying: “to remove from place by violence…to split or tear apart or in pieces by violence.” Without a doubt it seems that some amount is violence is involved when you rend something. And here, this verse is asking me to rend my heart in order to humbly return to God so that I might receive and recognize his grace and mercy. There are only a few times when my heart was rent. It usually was not by my own choosing and it almost always involved the death of someone near and dear to me. Why would I do that to myself? Why would I choose to rend and do violence to my heart?
Because forgiveness and healing are not easy. God’s grace and mercy are not cheap. His steadfast love never fails, but that does not mean we take it for granted. Anybody who has gone through any kind of recovery, therapy or counseling will tell you that in order to truly heal you have to breakthrough the darkness. You have to reach down and expose the darkest, ugliest bits in order to even begin the process of healing. Exposing, identifying and naming them does not mean instant healing. It just starts the process. So to was God’s means of dealing with sin in our life. He does not just want it identified, he wants it exposed, encountered and overcome. God’s salvation is not instant, it’s a process.
The Bible is way to long of a book for salvation to be provided in an instant.
But, this is the challenge of Lent. Do not skip the unpleasant part, the violence is unavoidable. You can not shortcut the rending of hearts and exposing sin for what it is. A story makes no sense if you just read the last chapter or last few pages. Lent prepares us to feel the weight of the season.
The tears Jesus cried during the celebration of Palm Sunday.
The violence and darkness of Good Friday.
The harrowing silence of Holy Saturday.
The glory and blessings of Easter will burst through with brighter colors and intensity when we take the time to recognize that the process of salvation and atonement was not easy, cheap or quick. Lent is not easy. Mourning and repentance is not easy. Death is not easy. Wearing an ashen cross on your forehead is not easy. It should not be. So, whether you choose to wear an ash cross today or not, make the choice to feel the weight of the Lenten season. Recognize that as a Christian you are marked, you have been bought with a price. With a great expense, your ransom has been paid.