“Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” (Joel 2:13)
This passage is taken from the First Reading for Ash Wednesday. The image is rich with meaning and as penitents, it is well worth pondering.
It speaks of a depth of sorrow for sin that goes far beyond the superficial. In Biblical times rending the garments was an outward sign of deep mourning or contrition. Unfortunately in the time of Joel, it was often just an outward sign and did not reflect the heart of the person displaying it.
The call to rend one’s heart implied a complete change of heart, the deepest contrition. That is what all God’s children are called to, not just penitents. Rending the heart involves a deliberate, intricate inspection of the heart that leads to a scouring out of even the least impurity. It leaves no stone unturned, no corner unexplored. It is a wrestling match with the angel of truth. Rending one’s heart is no mere symbol, but an action that shows we hold nothing dearer than a right relationship with God, not even life itself.
St. John Chrysostum compares the rending of our hearts to the plowing of a field to get rid of any “evil plant, any treacherous thought (that may) be present in us.”
“For if we do not now break up the fallow ground; if we do not now sow; if we do not now water it with tears, whilst it is a time of tribulation and fasting, when shall we ever be brought to compunction? Will it be when we are at ease, and in luxury? But this is impossible. For ease and luxury generally lead to indolence, just as tribulation leads back again to diligence; and restores to itself the mind that had wandered abroad, and been dreaming after a multitude of objects.” (Homily IV)
What a perfect image for us to reflect on! What a wonderful image for us to use as we continue to seek after the holiness of a life of penance. Let us take some time to reflect on what our minds and hearts have been dreaming after, and turn our minds and hearts back to God, who must be the object of our every thought, word, deed and desire.
The book of Joel is not the only place in scripture that mentions the rending of a heart but not a garment. Let us remember that the soldiers did not rend the garments of Christ at his crucifixion. Yet they rent his heart. This too is worth pondering. The heart of Christ was rent for our sin, not His, for he was sinless. What better reason is there for us to rend our own hearts in gratitude and contrition? Then on the last day, Christ will clothe us with the seamless garment of His perfection and purity, perfect attire for the wedding feast of the Lamb. Thanks be to God!