“We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5: 20)
We can be reconciled to God only because Christ died for us! He took upon himself the guilt of our sins and washed them away in his Precious Blood. We are ambassadors of this saving act. The ashes we wear on this day are reminders of the effects of our sin and that we have been redeemed through Christ’s death on the cross.
For this season Lent, I won’t be telling any jokes as the introduction to my homily. Rather, I’ll be presenting a saying of the desert fathers for us to reflect upon and gain insight. Here’s the first one: “Abba Zeno said, ‘If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else— even his own soul— when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action, God will hear everything that he asks.’ Profound wisdom indeed! It highlights to us the openness of heart that we all need to have before God whenever we pray and seek communion with God.
Indeed, such openness of heart is likewise commanded in our first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Joel in a dramatic way when he commands, “Rend your hearts, and not your clothing!” (Joel 2: 12) (repeat) What does Joel mean by this provocative command?
Well, he’s inviting us to look inside ourselves. To take the time, during this season of Lent to tear open our hearts, to make ourselves vulnerable to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit, and to trust that our exposed hearts will not be trampled underfoot or judged as unworthy of the Lord.
As Christians, the human heart is a symbol, that we often turn to, not just of God’s love and faithfulness to us, sinners, but also of the reciprocal love whereby we pledge to live our lives by a renewed commitment to the new and eternal covenant that was obtained for us through Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, shed upon the cross.
A covenanted relationship is a way of relating to God and God to us that forever changes the way we see each other, approach each other, interact with each other, and identify with each other. It’s a radical way of binding ourselves to God and God to us. And so, by its very nature, a covenant with God transforms us in ways that we can’t ever possibly estimate or imagine. But such a relationship can only do so if we take it seriously.
It can only do so if we keep our part of the covenanted relationship. Such a covenanted relationship with God becomes a sacrilege, abuse of a holy thing if we disregard our part in remaining faithful and steadfast to the Lord.
And that’s one of the effects of sin. It causes a weakening, on our part, of the covenant that God freely offers to us. It becomes exacerbated if we remain stubborn and obstinate and consciously stuck in our sins, unwilling to do anything to reform and repent and return to the Lord. You can think of unrepented sin as a sore on our skin that simply refuses to heal but instead becomes infected and painful and inflammatory to other cells of our body. The result of our sin is death.
And that’s what these ashes remind us of. They remind us of the brevity of our lives on earth, the fact that we will one day die, and will be asked whether or not we were faithful to God’s covenant with us. These ashes further remind us that we don’t have to remain steeped in the sickness of sin, but can turn to the Lord. We can repent of our sins and allow the forgiveness with which Christ’s death and shedding of his blood on the cross gifted us. We can allow God’s grace to help heal us of our sins, to blot them out forever, and to renew our covenanted relationship with Christ once more!
Such a turning away from sins requires a rending of the heart though! It can’t be accomplished by focusing on superficialities, akin to a tearing apart of our clothes. Such an act, though dramatic and meant to be noticed by others, does little to affect the interior disposition of our heart. No, a turning away from sin requires that we NOT center our attention on what others think of us or how we look to others, but on what GOD thinks of the state of our soul and the extent to which we’re willing to make substantive changes to our behaviors and lifestyle choices. It requires that we repent, and return to the Lord with a renewed heart.
Such a turning away from sin requires that we don’t take the easy road of superficially asking for God’s forgiveness and the very next day, commit the same exact sins again. It requires a concerted effort, on our part, to ask for God’s grace to enable a more profound and permanent turning away from sin and a closeness to God that would make turning back to that sin exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
To help cultivate this interior conversion of heart, Christ asks us to commit to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. —Praying not for others to see, but for a true communion with God to occur. If there is a grace to this pandemic, perhaps it is that many of us have had to learn how to pray in our homes and with our families, more than we’ve ever had to before. We may have come to appreciate more fully the gift of physically coming together as a church too. As a fast, we may be invited by the Lord to give something up or to do something extra that will help us become the sort of persons God calls us to be. So it may be fasting from criticism of others. It may be fasting from impatience with the restrictions of the pandemic. It may be fasting from judging others as not as dedicated to God like ourselves. Or it may be fasting of action, in which we choose to help out at the food bank, or call an elderly person who is homebound, or get our finances in order so that we don’t overspend. The ways in which we can fast are limited only by our imagination. And almsgiving calls us to give from our abundance to those who don’t have enough of the basic necessities of life. During Lent, we will hear about the ways in which others who are also suffering from this pandemic can be helped by our almsgiving.
In everything we do during our lifetime on earth, though, our motivation should be the immense outpouring of God’s love into our lives and how the experience of that love inspires us to love God in return. It should never be motivated, simply by a fear of Hell.
Love should be our underlying motivating force in all that we do because it was such love that Jesus poured out for us by his own death on the cross. So may we always strive to make love the principal driving force of all that we do this Lenten Season as we Rend our Hearts and not our clothing.
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