Throughout this season of Lent, I’ve been contemplating the words we hear God speaking to us each year on Ash Wednesday through the prophet Joel: “Rend your hearts.” As I sat with these three words, the poetic beauty of the passage began to give way to something far more challenging.
The word rend means to tear or split apart with force or violence. Is God really asking us to forcefully tear apart or split our hearts open? Why would anyone want to expose themselves to such pain? My initial reaction was to raise my defenses and safeguard my heart. But God’s challenging invitation persisted. Rend your heart.
The instinctive desire to guard our hearts from pain, especially the pain of being torn open, might seem the safest course of action. However the choice to protect our hearts from pain comes at a cost. It separates us from others and limits our capacity to give and receive love. The more radically we open ourselves to love, the more vulnerable we are to pain. The actions or inactions, words or silence from the ones we love can hurt us, disappoint us, or even stretch us in uncomfortable ways. It’s painful when this happens. When we rend our hearts, it also creates a space through which the suffering of others can enter into our lives, and their pain, in some way, becomes our own pain.
During these weeks of Lent, one of the places I have most consistently heard this call from God to rend my heart has been in the news reporting on the war in Ukraine. The images and stories of people’s lives – young and old – being devastated and destroyed are horrific. As the weeks go on, it becomes easier to tune them out as other things fill more of the new cycle. God’s call to rend my heart has prompted me numerous times to resist the urge to look away or numb myself to the atrocities. While I can’t begin to imagine the suffering they are actually experiencing, tearing my heart open to their pain has led me to a depth of compassion and empathy that I have not known before. I have grown in gratitude for the simple things in life that I often forget are blessings. As I have brought both this suffering and gratitude to prayer, it has further broken open my heart to love and care for those whom God places in my life.
In these final days of Holy Week, we celebrate Triduum and immerse ourselves in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus did not merely rend his heart; his very flesh was broken and torn open. He held nothing back to ensure nothing could keep us separated from God’s love. As blood flowed from his wounds, Jesus gave his life to each of us. Those wounds also opened a way for us to enter into the very life of God with all our pain, brokenness, and sinfulness. In his love for us, Jesus feels our pain as his own. And in his resurrection, Jesus transforms our pain and gives us new life.
This is the Mystery we enter into each time we celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus breaks open his life and gives it over to us so we can be united with him and transformed in his love. And he invites us to do the same. When we take the risk of rending our hearts, it opens a space in which God can transform us and the world.