March 1: Ash Wednesday
Why? Tearing clothing and wearing ashes were traditional biblical signs of mourning and repentance. But rending hearts?
Odd as this exhortation sounds, it pinpoints Lent’s starting point: the heart. In the biblical world, heart was seen as the inner workshop where thought and feeling come together to forge experience into wisdom. Wisdom hammers out our worldview and our values. From them we make our daily choices and decisions. What we do starts in the heart (see Matt 15:18-20).
So Lent is first of all heart work. Like cooks, carpenters, artists, and householders, we are invited to turn out the cupboards and closets of the heart to see what’s stored there. Are some of our habits of thinking and doing getting stale? Are some of them troublemakers? Are some of them bogging down our spiritual journey with useless baggage? What needs to change? What needs to go?
We are also invited to take a look at God’s past promptings now stuffed into the back of our spiritual cubbyholes and forgotten. What blessings has God left behind in previous Lents and in the seasons in between (Joel 2:14)? What tools old and new do we already have that would help us with this year’s heart work?
Lent is work, but we do not work alone. Before we cook up our own plans, some perhaps self-serving, the gospel acclamation directs us to begin with the kind of prayer that seeks to learn: “If today you hear [God’s] voice, / harden not your hearts” (verse before the gospel; see Ps 95:8).
Lent is heart work. Jesus cautions us in today’s gospel against confusing external changes—extra prayer for public show, alms trumpeted over coffee after Mass, piously gloomy faces pinched with fasting—with the changes that matter. Those are heart changes for the sake of life changes so that we can honestly make or renew our Easter baptismal commitment to live in Christ.
Rend your hearts, not your garments.
What changes is God calling you to make this Lent “in my thoughts and in my words, / in what I have done and in what I have failed to do” as we pray at Mass? What heart changes will they require?
God of mercy and compassion, grant that we may undertake our Lenten heart work with honesty, courage, and humility so that it may become for us a healing remedy (see prayer after Communion).