Lent is about being broken open—not broken down
A Reflection for the Friday after Ash Wednesday
“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:19b).
In the spring of 2003, I was preparing to get ordained. And one of the many tasks to be completed was the creation of an ordination card that would be given out to anyone who came to the ordination or my first Masses. It is basically the priest version of a baseball card—on one side you have your picture or some kind of religious imagery, and on the other is your name, your date and location of ordination, your batting average and a quote.
(O.K., maybe not your batting average.)
I spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about this card, which was not at all because I was about to be ordained and maybe slightly freaking out. Fonts. Font size. Card stock. How to present my name: James? James P.? Jim? That Bozo?
I wonder if another way of looking at the psalm—and Lent, too—is not in terms of being broken down as much as it is allowing ourselves to be broken open.
When it came to a quote, though, I settled pretty quickly on a passage from Ezekiel 36: “…and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” I had heard my Old Testament professor Dick Clifford talk about it at some point in my studies, and it had just stayed with me.
In today’s psalm response we hear, “A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” To me the line has connotations of someone on their knees rending their garments and weeping after they have been confronted with the terrible things they have done. It is almost like we are being told, “God will love you once you’re well and truly ashamed of yourself.” Don’t get me wrong, I have committed plenty of sins, and I am grateful for a God that would forgive me. I am just not too excited at the idea that I have to be all the way to the point of real humiliation before I can count on him taking me in.
But I wonder if another way of looking at the psalm—and Lent, too—is not in terms of being broken down as much as it is allowing ourselves to be broken open. There are so many ways in which we try to insulate ourselves from others—and really, from the possibility of pain. The demands of life themselves call forth that instinct; sometimes our hearts need to get stonier just to survive.
We do this not to shame ourselves or because we think we will be safe. We won’t. See: the crucifixion of Jesus.
Lent is about daring to peek outside that castle, trying to be more vulnerable and exposed. We do this not to shame ourselves or because we think we will be safe. We won’t. See: the crucifixion of Jesus. We do it because we know we need others to be happy and our best selves. Realizing that truth, that is truly humbling and ultimately a great blessing.
Get to know Jim McDermott, S.J., Associate Editor
What are you giving up for Lent?
Honestly, I don’t really like the idea of giving up things for Lent. For me it seems too self-focused. (Also I’m very capable of not eating chocolate chip cookies for Lent and still being a real jerk.) I want to try and be more generous and open with others.
Do you cheat on Sundays?
Does the pope drink mate?
Favorite non-meat recipe
Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons hot water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
Cream together the butter, white sugar and brown sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Dissolve baking soda in hot water. Add to batter along with salt. Stir in flour, chocolate chips and nuts. Drop by large spoonfuls onto ungreased pans.
Bake for about 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until edges are nicely browned.
Eat slowly. Be nice to people.
Favorite Lenten poem
I love this poem by the Australian Jesuit Peter Steele. For me it’s very much about the promise of Easter within the season of Lent.
“If You Watch”
If you watch as you have not watched before
you will see the morning
begin to lace the darkness
If you turn from the trail that has drawn you for ages
and gaze at the fringes
you will see the timber budding.
If you lean from the place of your balance,
your arms uplifted
a rhythm will catch and lift you.
For the Lord has come to his people, and the earth
trembles with joy,
the Father is kindling his fire on the earth,
the Son is roving with life in his touch,
the Spirit is rising though we are falling
And the promise come true that brought us to birth
the promise that lingered in the young and feeble
the promise that drove us from evening to morning
And the lame shall move with the gait of kings
the broken flourish, the bound step forth
and God exult among his children
So name him, and find your name in his.
Seek in the needy the light of his face
lift up your hearts, today and forever.
– Peter Steele, S.J.