Ash Wednesday : heart-rending, heart-mending

“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the prophet.

Rend your hearts: “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” says the Psalmist.

A broken and contrite heart you will not despise. “We entreat you on behalf of Christ,” then, “be reconciled to God,” says Saint Paul.

Be reconciled to God: the lesson of Lent. Return to God with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your hearts.

Yet it seems strange. It makes for some head-scratching, the notion that reconciliation with God comes through a broken heart, through dust and ashes, symbols of death rather than life. Isn’t it rather healing that we are looking for; health and wholeness and life abundant? It seems almost counter-productive to gather the people to a solemn assembly, a feast before the Lord, in order to proclaim a fast. And then, in a crowning irony, once we are all here, gathered to pray, Jesus tells us to go and hide in our rooms and close our doors and pray to God in secret.

Martin L. Smith, in a very prayerful book, writes that the reason that Jesus gave this strange instruction to his disciples, men and women who probably found it quite difficult to secure a private place to pray, was to emphasize the whole-heartedness of prayer. Smith says,

 Jesus could have recommended his followers to go on praying in public as before, but to suppress all outward signs of being at prayer. ‘When you pray, make it appear to those around you as though you were merely carrying on your everyday business.’… Isn’t this, after all, just what many of us try to do?  We pray ‘in our heads’ while keeping up the appearance of merely walking the dog or of being lost in the usual reverie of subway passengers.[1]

What Smith doesn’t say bluntly, but could, is that we tend to pray whilst trying not to look ‘weird,’ or ‘different,’ fanatical,’ or, let’s face it, religious.

Fair enough. Because as long as we are worrying about what other people are thinking, we are not giving our full attention to God. We are praying, we are trying, we are learning, we are grasping at straws, but we are not taking whole-hearted gulps of God-air, of devoted, reconciling, one-with-God prayer.

So, in order to pray with our whole hearts, bodies, minds, spirits, with all our strength and soul, we need to develop the practice of private prayer. Jesus, remember, used to sneak away by himself when he needed a time of prayer, a time to reconcile, to know himself one with God. Smith, again:

 Prayer in private is prayer which can give God undivided attention and in which we can be wholly ourselves without the inhibitions imposed by the presence of others. Unobserved and free from the fear of interruption, there is no need to behave as if we were actually engaged in something other than prayer. If we cry the tears may flow without disconcerting others or arousing their curiosity.[2]

In private, with only God to see us face to face, we may rend our hearts without shame, or distraction, or reserve.

Our hearts, let’s face it, are already broken. We know our sin; we know our own wounds; we know the hearts that we ourselves have broken. We may hide them from one another, washing our faces and blotting our eyes and walking tall, putting on a brave face, but behind closed doors, God waits to hear the whole truth, the true story of our lives; waits to heal our broken hearts, if only we will place them in God’s hands. And, Jesus tells us, God will richly reward us.

The Reverend C. Eric Funston, Rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, writing about friendship with God on his blog on Monday quoted the writer Anais Nin:

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”[3]

What greater reward could there be than to know God as a true friend, and to build a new world, a new life together? What better new world than one in which we are washed clean, presented with a clean heart, a new and right spirit, new life?

What better hope, in the midst of our mortality, than a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?

Our hearts are already broken, but God waits to heal them, if we will place them in God’s hands, risking the vulnerability, the intimacy of private prayer, trusting our hearts to God’s hands, who will hold them, those fragile, beating things, tenderly, as the most precious gift in the world.

“For,” Jesus also says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

God has invested great treasure in us, making us even from the dust in the divine image; breathing life into us by way of God’s own Holy Spirit; sending Jesus to us, God’s own Son. God has invested the greatest treasure in you, and where God places treasure, there the divine heart will dwell, too.

Do you doubt it? That’s ok: go into your room, close the door, and pray to God your Father your secret doubts, and your Father, who hears you in secret, who is gracious and slow to anger, who is awaiting your reconciliation, your trust, your broken heart: that God will reward you with the most tender mercy, with abounding and astonishing, heart-rending and heart-mending, steadfast love.

May you know a wholly holy, no-holds-barred Lent; and may you find new worlds, new life in the God who has entrusted the heart of Christ to you, so that you may be reconciled to him.


[1] Martin L. Smith, The Word Is Very Near You: a guide to praying with scripture (Cowley Publications, 1989), 71

[2] Ibid, 72

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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