RETURN TO ME WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH FASTING, WITH WEEPING, AND WITH MOURNING
(A biblical refection on ASH WEDNESDAY, 1 March 2017)
First Reading: Joel 2:12-18
Psalms: Psalm 51:3-6,12-14,17; Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
The Scripture Text
“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repent of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Then the LORD became jealous for His land, and had pity on His people. (Joel 2:12-18 RSV)
Once again, we begin the season of Lent, a time when God waits with outstretched arms for us to come to Him: “Return to me …… with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” We know that Lent is a season of fasting and penance, but what does God urge first of all? “Return to me with all your heart …… Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12,13). In this special season of grace, our Church offers more liturgies and services that invite us to slow down for a time and allow the Holy Spirit to work cleansing miracles in our hearts as we repent and turn back to our heavenly Father.
Our sins can cause us such grief and shame not only because they cause human suffering but also because they separate us from the Lord. This is why repentance is so important in our day-to-day Christian lives. But make no mistake, real repentance is not just feeling sorry for our sins! It is an understanding that sin offends God’s holiness. It is a decision to ask God to help us make changes in our behavior. That is why God keeps calling us to rend our hearts – to split them open and not try to change them ourselves. The goal, however, is not make ourselves flawless. Who could do that anyway? Indeed, as we humble ourselves, we allow the Holy Spirit to give us new hearts and right spirits.
Jesus told us not to practice our piety before men in order to be seen by them (see Mt 6:1). God does not just want to forgive our sins. He wants to pour out blessing as well. He wants both to pardon us and transform us supernaturally “in secret”. Rather than see us concerned about every little thought and action, God wants us to make our hearts fertile ground for His Holy Spirit. Could there be greater joy than knowing our heavenly Father loves us and experiencing His power transforming our hearts?
How does this transformation happen? When we give alms and pray and fast, we can invite the Holy Spirit to take up residence in our hearts. By adopting these traditional practices with hearts that are focused on the Father’s love and not on our sacrifices, we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us. We allow Him to make us more passionate for Jesus and more compassionate toward others. And as a result, we begin to think and act just as Jesus did.
The Holy Spirit wants to make us confident in God’s love. He wants to make us merciful toward those who need mercy; steadfastly opposed to sin, both in us and in the world; and open to the miraculous. And it all begins as we rend our hearts, plowing up ground for the Holy Spirit to sow His seeds. Let us embrace this Lent as a time overflowing grace! In the quiet of our hearts, let us take up Jesus’ thrice-given promise: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4,6,18).
Short Prayer: Holy Spirit-God, I welcome You this Lent. I want to rend my heart, so that You have room to work in me. Amen.
Jakarta, 28 February 2017
A Christian Pilgrim