Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of that season of the church year that is most commonly associated with penance. But there is a danger lurking in that definition. If penance is all that Lent is about, the season, if not almost useless, is at least somewhat trivial. It makes the spiritual life some kind of arithmetical balancing act. I do so many penances for so much human misadventure and payback time is over. The important thing is that I remember to come out even.
But Lent is a much greater moment in life than that. Today's readings make the distinction stark and clear.
The scripture for the opening of Lent, Joel 2:12-18, takes us back to a time of great danger in Israel. The land has been ravaged by locusts, the crops are failing. The very life of the population is in question. The prophet Joel, convinced that the people have brought the disaster upon themselves by virtue of their unfaithfulness, summons the House of Israel to repent its ways. But, interestingly enough, he does not call them to attend penance services in the synagogue. He does not require them to make animal sacrifices in the temple. He does not talk about public displays of remorse, the time-honored tearing of garments to demonstrate grief. No, Joel says instead, "Rend your hearts and not your clothing."
Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.
Lent is a summons to live anew.
The first challenge of Lent is to open ourselves to life. When we "rend our hearts" we break them open to things we are refusing for some warped reason to even consider. We have refused for years, perhaps, to even think about renewing old commitments that we've allowed to go to dust -- spending time with the children, visiting our parents, exercising, taking time to read good books. We've closed our minds, maybe, to the thought of reconciling with old friends whom we have hurt. We've refused to put the effort into reviving old spiritual practices like visits to church, meditation in the morning, the memorization of the psalms, that we allowed to die in our youth but failed to substitute for as we aged. We've failed to repent old abrasions, quick words, harsh judgements made in haste and expiated never. We have closed the doors of our hearts, as time went by, to so many of the things we need to live full and holy lives.
Lent is the time to let life in again, to rebuild the worlds we've allowed to go sterile, to "fast and weep and mourn" for the goods we've foregone. If our own lives are not to die from lack of nourishment, we must sacrifice the pride or the sloth or the listlessness that blocks us from beginning again.
Then, as Joel promises, God will have pity on us and pour into our hearts the life we know down deep that we are lacking.