“Rend your heart, and not your garments…” (Joel 2:13a)
Lent is here, and for many, that means we are inching closer to Easter and Spring. These are times of new life, rejoicing, and rebirth. But we are not there yet. We have to contend with Lent first, the season of repentance, sacrifice, and reflection. When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, Lent meant no meat on Fridays and an obligatory 40-day relinquishment of something I liked. In short, Lent was the season to endure in order to get to the better stuff. But isn’t life a lot like Lent? If Lent is a penultimate season--a season before the one that matters the most, then its placement carries a sense of anticipation. If so, Lent is always with us, is the place where we live our lives as we await Jesus’ return, or take our flight to glory.
Even within Lent, however, just like in our everyday lives, there are interruptions of grace. Technically speaking, Lent lasts for 40 days (because Jesus fasted for 40 days). But you don’t count the Sundays as part of Lent because the church always celebrates Sunday as the day of the resurrection. There can be no sorrow or mourning on Sundays. That’s also why funerals rarely happen on Sundays.
But, as you know too well from your lives, you can’t live each day as a Sunday. You may try, but you’d soon realize that this world and our lives are so caught up in sin and brokenness that we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the intruding seasons of grief, loss, fear, anger, and uncertainty that comprise life before Jesus returns. Lent is an opportunity to allow God into those moments--not as the God of victory and celebration, but as the ever-present whisperer of grace amidst calamity and a Fatherly presence through conflict.
Lent is a season of reflection and repentance—but also a curious type of joy. In Lent, we reflect upon our sin and brokenness and about the fleeting stability and reliability of life. We also practice repentance, which moves us past regret and into action—an attempt to be obedient to God in the things to which we find ourselves lapsing. This may give Lent a bad reputation, an accusation of being a killjoy season, a strange way-point on the way to Easter’s better days. But that would be a hasty deduction at great expense to Lent’s benefits. There is joy in Lent, but it is the kind of joy that comes in being made whole, the sort of peace that arrives in taking a drowning man and hauling him on the deck of a rescue ship. If Easter were to come to life and be a type of personified joy, we might envision it as a dancer. “There goes Easter, round and round in pure ecstasy, unstoppable and unable to let anything slow it down!”
Lent is a different kind of joy. It’s the joy that comes in serenity: the joy of being rescued and realizing there is another day ahead of you. It’s the joy of holding the hand of a loved one as they pass peacefully into the arms of Jesus. Lent is the joy of insight, or understanding, the joy which accompanies self-reflection and awareness-—wisdom’s precious advent. Lent isn’t bombastic; it’s a time when mysteries stabilize into greater faith; a season where the crooked lines collect into symmetry. In Lent, joy isn’t decorated in celebration but with the trenchant confidence of sobriety.
Lent offers buoyancy to the conscience by gracing it with the ballast of God’s invitation to come to God as a sinner, not as you would be, but as you actually are.
From the mouth of God, Joel records, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” Lent is this time of rending. But this kind of rending is contrasted with a cheap counterfeit—” and not your garments.” The rending of Lent is not like the cosmetic showmanship of tearing your robe. No, Lent goes deeper, to the heart, the marrow, into the sticky, black darkness of our inner selves that festers all kinds of pestilence which kills and destroys. Lent is the invitation to shine God’s light of truth and grace into these tender spaces and render our hearts clean. Lent offers buoyancy to the conscience by gracing it with the ballast of God’s invitation to come to God as a sinner, not as you would be, but as you actually are. If we put on our Sunday best for Easter to celebrate the resurrection, Lent calls us to waste no time in such festiveness. “Come as you are, come dirty, come poor. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done; what matters is you come!”
That’s what Lent is about: the joy of following after the Son of Man who beckons us to come to him as we are. To abide in Jesus is to travel with him in the way of suffering. The sacrificial life of Jesus leads us to the same place he goes—the cross. And just as we fittingly call the Friday he dies “Good,” so too the season of Lent is fittingly—curiously, joyous. Lent offers a unique kind of joy. That joy comes in the somber realization that our sinfulness can be confessed to God’s open ears. It is a peace that believes that same sinfulness is met in unequal and greater measure by God’s grace which washes it away. That grace ever flows from the cross where all such sins are absorbed into the One made sin for us and their death with him.
With such a season offered to us to experience, don’t neglect Lent’s invitation for self-reflection, repentance, and the cross. And don’t just tear your garments. Rend your heart so that God Himself can fill it up and make it anew in the Good News of Jesus Christ. The curious joy of Lent is that for those who live awaiting God’s consummation of all things, there is a Man who walks beside us in the here-and-now. This Man invites us to cry the tears we dam-up behind pretexts and platitudes. The Crucified Man says, “Let your tears of contrition burst open from their hidden springs and paint your face with sorrow. Empty the waterlogged conscience of regret. I will wipe the tears away. I will fill you with grace.” The joy of Lent is not a dance; it’s the peace of rescue, the application of Good News, God’s presence in suffering.