“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” Joel 2:12-13.
Don’t we trivialise Lent? The season of penitence has become a season for not eating sweets or not having a glass of wine at the weekends; fasting has become a matter of avoiding cake and biscuits; giving to the poor means loose change in a cardboard collection box. There is no rending of the heart, no complete turn around in our lives, yet turning around is what repentance means, turning around and heading in a new direction.
How much different would we be if we really took to heart the words of the prophet Joel? What would it demand of us?
The Palestinian bishop, Elias Chacour once spoke bluntly to his own community about what repentance, turning around, being reconciled with God, and with one another, really meant:
“This morning while I celebrated the liturgy, I found someone who is able to help you. In fact, he is the only one who can work the miracle of reconciliation in this village. This person who can reconcile you is Jesus Christ, and he is here with us…So on Christ’s behalf, I say this to you: Either you kill each other right here in your hatred and then I will celebrate your funerals gratis, or you use this opportunity to be reconciled together before I open the doors of the church. If that reconciliation happens, Christ will truly become your Lord, and I will know I am becoming your pastor and your priest. That decision is now yours.’
Perhaps we reduce Lent to a matter of abstaining from sweets and biscuits to avoid the full impact of what is being asked of us, to avoid the realisation that being a Christian makes life-changing demands of us.
Fr Chacour was ministering in a community where the divisions were deep; where people attended services and professed a love for God, while holding on to a visceral hatred not just for other people within the community, but for others within the same church building. Only a head on confrontation would ever challenge the depth of feeling; allusions and oblique comments would have been taken as references to someone else. He sought to shock people into change, to approach the matter as directly as had the prophets of the Old Testament.
The prophet Joel understood how readily people would repent in their words, but not in their hearts. In Joel’s time, it was not chocolate and biscuits, it was tearing one’s clothes that was seen as an outward sign of penitence, yet the rending of garments was no more a sign of a changed person in his time than would be an absence of sweet wrappers in our time. Joel looked for a profound inner change, a genuine reconciliation; Elias Chacour seeks such profound turning around among the members of his church.
What about us? What does God ask of us on this Ash Wednesday? Do we really think he is impressed if we get to Easter without eating peppermints or chocolate digestives? Is that the level at which we place God? A God of the little things and the small change?
‘Return to me with all your heart’ is God’s call through the prophet Joel. Returning to him with all our hearts means seriously looking at what divides us from God, and what divides us from others, and being wholeheartedly determined to remove whatever it is that blocks the way.
Perhaps we feel we are people better than those in Elias Chacour’s congregation, perhaps there would be no need for the doors to be locked to force us to be reconciled, but what about our relationships with those beyond these walls? What about our relationship with God himself?
Reconciliation is no easy matter; it cost God his Son to reconcile us with him. In repentance we are seeking reconciliation, something far deeper than the trivial things that can characterise the way we keep Lent. Is your Lent about a bar of chocolate in expressing sorrow to God? That was the question Joel was asking his listeners, that is the question we must ask ourselves.