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Sam Sawyer, S.J. February 22, 2023

A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

“Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God.” (Jl 2:13)

This line from Joel has always caught my attention, and almost always catches me up short. There’s an extravagance to it—rend your hearts—that seems both attractive and overwhelming at the same time. The images the prophet invokes, of fasting, weeping and mourning, are public forms of penitence and, perhaps even more profoundly, of grief. And though the counsel that our penitence and conversion must be interiorized in order to go deep, affecting our hearts more than our outward appearance, matches well with the Ash Wednesday Gospel about almsgiving, praying and fasting in secret, “rend” has something more in it. That something more, raw and stark as it is, seems to call out and draw us in. It is no accident that on this day when the church calls us back into the struggle against sin and for conversion, we are greeted first not with words of comfort but of challenge. We are welcomed by being reminded of our need to grieve.

And yet who wants grief?

Each Lent, as our foreheads are marked with ash in a reminder of our mortality, we draw breath for the long journey ahead, to conform our minds and hearts more and more to God’s.

One of the great wisdoms of Christian faith, I think, is the recognition that grief is necessary and can be healing. Grief responds to the world being broken by sin, and to human beings suffering under the weight of sin, both as victims and as perpetrators of harm. Grief cries out in response to and even against the death that sin brings into the world, saying “This is not what we are made for.” Grief refuses to justify the victory of sin and death, even while confessing—and this is where it can open us to healing—that we have no power of our own to overcome them.

When I read that line from Joel, the feeling is like taking a really deep breath, drawing in strength to begin something difficult but exciting. But it also feels like taking a deep breath when your lungs are burning or your chest is aching.

Each Lent, as our foreheads are marked with ash in a reminder of our mortality, we draw breath for the long journey ahead, to conform our minds and hearts more and more to God’s. We tell the truth about ourselves and about the world: that we have sinned and are in need of mercy. We rend our hearts this day in reparation for all the days when our hearts have been closed to the suffering of our sisters and brothers, for all the days when we have turned our hearts to our own desires rather than to the kingdom of God.

We know, because God has mercy on us, that “now is the day of salvation”; we know that our “Father who sees in secret” will make our prayer, fasting and almsgiving fruitful. And we know that by the rending of our hearts we are returning to the Lord, who “was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.”

Get to know Sam Sawyer, S.J.

What are you giving up for Lent?

I’m boring about Lenten disciplines; I’ve learned that fasting from something I’ll encounter pretty much daily is most helpful to keep me mindful of Lent. So I give up snacks.

Do you cheat on Sundays?

Yes, following my grandfather’s example, who always had a glass of wine on Sundays when giving up alcohol for Lent.

Favorite non-meat recipe

Eggplant parmesan

Favorite Easter memory

There was the year my folks hid an Easter basket in the dryer and it took us hours to find it. But really, my favorite Easter memory is the first year I helped out with the Easter Vigil, standing ready with a towel to hand to a sponsor waiting for a newly baptized Christian climbing out of the water.

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