What are you giving up for Lent? I hate this question. I hate it in part because my small-town Minnesota sensibilities recoil at the idea of publicizing sacrifice. If I give up something big, won’t I then be proud of that accomplishment, thus negating any spiritual benefit I might have gained by giving something up? But I also hate the question in part because, like everyone, I am deeply flawed and I seek the high esteem of others. I want to give up something really difficult to seem holier than I am. But my usual measly sacrifice of pizza or burgers is not very noble at all, especially in light of my friends’ more drastic Lenten sacrifices.
So today, on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I wonder: what is the point of penitential practices during Lent? And is there anything that I can do to make my Lent more meaningful, to bring about real change in myself? As a liturgical historian, my first instinct is to go back to the origins of Lent as we know it. Those origins are murky, but by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and the decades of popular practice of Paschal baptism that followed, a pattern of Lent as a period of baptismal preparation develops. Lent came to serve as the final period of preparation, religious instruction, and ritual purification for those catechumens who were to be baptized at the Paschal Vigil. At the same time, the community of Christians prayed and fasted along with the baptismal candidates during Lent. In time, with the rise of the practice of infant baptism, Lent became increasingly geared towards those who were already baptized, especially those who had sinned grievously and then sought re-entrance into the community. Lent became the final step of the penitential process of reconciliation to the Body of Christ, culminating in receiving communion during the Paschal celebrations. While our modern Lenten practices echo these baptismal and penitential origins, I think that the first reading of today’s liturgy calls us to go even deeper.
In our first reading, the prophet Joel calls the people of Israel to conversion. He says:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
Here and throughout this prophetic book, the Prophet Joel is doing what prophets do best. He is calling the people to conversion by making them aware of their sins and pointing them to ideal action. Prophets frequently point out people’s sins, but not just for the sake of exposing their wrongdoings—they are not whistleblowers. Prophets also call people to be and do better, but not some vague ideal—they are not self-help gurus. The Prophets of ancient Israel call the people to total conversion. Conversion literally means, “to turn around,” but it is not a process of just turning from one thing to another. It is a process of turning back to your true self, turning back to the person who God made you to be. The Israelites were called to be God’s priestly people, a holy nation, God’s treasured possession, a people of the covenant. Christians, however, are called to embody Christ on earth: having died and risen with Christ in baptism, we are called to be Christ for others. Lent, then, is about baptism in the sense that we journey with the catechumens as they go through this final forty day process of entering the Church by dying and rising with Christ in baptism at the Paschal Vigil. But Lent is also about our own baptism as we use these forty days as a journey of personal and corporate penitence, a forty day process of re-entering the Church, renewing our baptismal vows and dying and rising with Christ during the three days of the Triduum. We, like the ancient Israelites, are called to turn back to our true selves; we are called to be the people that God has, through water and Spirit, remade us to be. So how do we go about this process?
Pope Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Beunos Aires, wrote the following message on the theme of Joel to his Archdiocese of Buenos Aires on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013, just one month before he was elected pope:
Rend your hearts, so that through that crack we can really look at ourselves.
Rend your hearts, open your hearts, because only in a broken and open heart can the merciful love of God enter, who loves and heals us.
Rend your hearts says the prophet, and Paul asks us almost on his knees “be reconciled with God.” To change one’s way of living is the sign and fruit of this broken and reconciled heart by a love that surpasses us.
“Rend your hearts, not your garments.” What are Cardinal Bergoglio and the Prophet Joel saying here? Traditionally, the people of Israel would rip or rend their clothing to signify mourning. Other symbols of grief included putting ashes on their head. You can see where this is going: our ritual of ashes draws from this. But Joel is calling the people to not just ritually acknowledge their sins, but to mourn their sins—to grieve for their broken relationship with God—in not simply outward ways, but inwardly as well. To encourage the people’s conversion, the prophet Joel is not calling them to strengthen their resolve through rituals of penance, he’s telling them to take these penitential rituals straight to their hearts, to the very core of their beings. They are not told to demonstrate repentance on the outside, but in their hearts and souls. Only by tearing open their very hearts can they experience and express their sorrow at their sins. Or, further, according to Cardinal Bergoglio, only by rending our own hearts open can any of us break open and lay bare those sinful, selfish, controlling, destructive compulsions within ourselves. Only by breaking open our hearts can we let God in.
There is a Japanese approach to ceramics called Kintsugi, which means “golden joinery.” Kintsugi takes broken pottery and fixes it by filling the cracks with adhesive and then dusting them with gold. Where most repairs seek to camouflage damage, Kintsugi highlights and makes beautiful the very imperfections that we would usually seek to hide. The broken vessel is thus more beautiful for having been broken and made anew.
There are many lovely Catholic devotional images of hearts that serve as helpful meditations on divine love, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Divine Mercy devotion, and so on. But I want to put forward a new image of a heart to meditate on: the Christian heart. The Christian heart is a broken heart, a heart whose brokenness is filled the golden beauty of God’s love. The Christian vocation to love is not about having a strong, impenetrable heart and the ideal Christian heart is not unblemished, free of wear and tear. It is a heart broken time and time again; the brokenness not simply healed, but made beautiful by God filling the imperfections and remaking them. These gilded imperfections form a pattern that tells a story not of an unbreakable heart, but of a heart made stronger and more beautiful by being torn open by loving and brought together again through God’s love. A broken heart is not something to fear and avoid, then: it is the very means of our salvation, the key to wholeness. The Christian heart is a heart that is broken for God.
Lent, then, is not merely a time of atoning for sins, it’s a time of preparation. We prepare to become again at Pascha what we were once baptized into: Christ’s own body. We practice, for forty days, habits which break us open, let God in, and train us to love like Christ. Lent is the forty day process of rending our hearts, filling the broken places with God’s love, and fearlessly loving as Christ loved.
And the Church, as the Body of Christ, must serve as an icon of that heart. The Church cannot be an impenetrable fortress against the evils of the world, cannot fear openness, but must embody and witness to this broken heart. The Church must be a heart that breaks for the poor, the refugee, the helpless, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the incarcerated, even the environment. It must acknowledge that it is a heart fragmented by schism and discord; a heart ripped by racism, sexism, homophobia, clericalism, colonialism; a heart torn by in-fighting and politics; a heart utterly shattered by the Church’s own shepherds abusing and then covering up the abuse of the most vulnerable. The Church must be an icon of a heart torn a million different ways for the sake of being filled back in again with the Holy Spirit, with God’s transformative Love. It must be a shining example of breaking open the heart to reveal imperfections and to allow God in. It must be a broken heart made whole by God for the sake of loving the world.
So what are we to do? How shall we use these forty days to rend our hearts and let God in? I want to suggest a three-part program of: breaking your heart, letting God in, and loving openly with your broken heart according to the pattern of Christ. First: the heartbreak. Here is where those Lenten ascetic practices and disciplines come into play. These practices are never goals in and of themselves, but instead are tools, working like ice picks to crack open our hearts, levers to pry them open, so that we can look inside ourselves and see our deepest longings and fears for what they really are. Each Lenten ascetic practice—denying oneself meat, or luxury, or sleep, or treats—helps us to put our lifestyles and desires into perspective and creates a space for God to enter in. Next, we must allow God to come into our lives and into our hearts: here is where Lenten practices of daily prayer and reading scripture are important. Take some time each day to pray, breaking open the monotony of the everyday to let God in to your life. For prayer, I would recommend the traditional prayers of baptism, the Creed and the Our Father, to serve as daily reminders of baptism. The rosary, as a meditation on the life of Jesus, would also work well. For scripture, there are many wonderful books to guide your reading of the Bible this Lent. I have used Robert Krieg’s Treasure in the Field: Salvation in the Bible and in Our Lives in my classes and my students have found it helpful alongside their assigned scripture readings.
Finally, we are called to live as God has recreated us in baptism: to be Christ to others. The Israelites had the Law, which can be boiled down to being faithful to God and just to one another. Christians are called to love as Christ loves, the Christian fulfillment of the Law. Christ’s love is a merciful love, a love that enters into the chaos of another so as to meet them in their need. This way of loving requires an openness and vulnerability, a letting in of the stranger and the unknown, and a giving away parts of ourselves that we may rather keep. It calls us to love without restrictions, without conditions, to love without guarantee, to love without a safety net, to love without fear of a broken heart. In short, to love as Christ loves, we must be willing to love to the extent of allowing our hearts to be broken. And this brings us back to step one: breaking our hearts. Because becoming like Christ is not a one-time event, it is being constantly remade in Christ in our daily lives and in all aspects of our lives. The penitential season of Lent is not about slow progress to a singular moment of conversion; rather, it is a process of constant conversion. The rituals of Lent, such as giving something up or marking our foreheads with ashes, do not in and of themselves mark our conversion moment. Instead, they are habits of ongoing conversion: allowing us to break open our hearts and give them over to God, through whom our hearts are remade according to the pattern of Christ’s own heart.
So what am I giving up for Lent? Fear of a broken heart.
 Such as my dear friend who went around with a rock in his shoe for the entirety of Lent and beyond, bless him.
 You can read then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s letter in full here: https://zenit.org/articles/cardinal-bergoglio-s-lenten-message-for-buenos-aires/
 For more on Kintsugi, see this essay: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/05/kintsugi-the-art-of-broken-pieces/
 Robert Krieg of course wrote for Daily Theology recently on the topic of salvation for our Theology 101 series: https://dailytheology.org/2016/02/03/theology-101-salvation/