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
Everything we see around us is fast. We want computers to go fast, cars to go fast, struggles to be over quickly, grief to pass instantaneously. Our goal is to do things faster, more efficiently so we can… make more money? Spend more time with family? Just keep going faster and faster? Avoid looking at ourselves in the mirror?
Every once in awhile we have to slow down and see where we are. Unfortunately, too often when we do that we find that we aren’t even close to where we want to be. All those hours spent at work never quite reach the point where we can spend more time with family. All the worry we expend on money never quite seems to get us enough. All the talk about following God and doing the right thing never quite seems to make us holy or perfect or even close.
Ash Wednesday has a deserved reputation for being about acknowledging just how far we have traveled from the straight and narrow path Christ has for us. In more ancient times people would tear (or “rend”) their clothes as a sign of their own brokenness. Ash Wednesday is a time when we rend ourselves – to tear away the outward mask to reveal the inward being.
Yet God wants more. God wants more than outward shows of penitence and words of sorrow. The prophet Joel tells us God commands us to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Rending our hearts is a very different, more intimate matter than rending our clothing. Clothing can be repaired or replaced, a broken heart is much harder to put back together. Surely our hearts must be torn asunder when some minor changes will put us back on the right path? No, because the change we need is not minor and will not come from small, repairable steps. We need to break from who we are, and even sometimes what we love, in order to truly walk the road God wants us to travel.
This would be impossible if we did not hear the promise which follows the command. Indeed on Ash Wednesday we tear our hearts before God and acknowledge that we cannot live any longer without God’s direction. And if God were to toss the pieces of our lives away without a care then we would simply be asking for a depressing void to open up in our souls or even worse for the guilt we run away from every day to catch up with us and consume us.
Yet that is not what God will do. “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love,” writes the prophet, “and relents from punishing.” Ash Wednesday is about more than penitence and sorrow. It is about remembering again the wonderful, powerful, transforming love and grace of God. It is about stepping into a new life, full of mercy and truth, guided by our Lord Jesus Christ. To do that we need to release our old life, and even to grieve for it. We grieve through the putting on of ashes, and remembering that all we have is temporary: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And we look forward to the day when the words continue, “And from the dust you shall be raised again at the last day.”