Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and relenting in punishment.
You have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first.
This reading from Joel tugs at my heartstrings more than almost any other. I have an image of a man whose wife has grown distant coming to her and falling on his knees, begging her to love him again. That’s what the repentance of Lent is — not an angry God demanding that you grovel but a spurned husband pleading with you to come home. It’s an invitation to return to the Lord who holds out bleeding hands to welcome us back.
The invitation is to fast and weep and mourn, but the Lord makes it clear that the point isn’t to fulfill some outward requirement but to allow our hearts to be broken so that he can enter. For some of us, there are great obstacles between us and the Lord, terrible sins that only the sacrament of confession can heal. This season of penance calls us to be reconciled, reborn in the steadfast love of the Father.
For many others, though, Lent seems like just another hurdle to jump through. We go to Mass every Sunday, sometimes more. We pray, give alms, even memorize the occasional Bible verse. We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and the Lord is pleased. But we’ve lost the love we had at first. Not the passion, the feelings of fullness and peace and zeal that colored our lives when we first knew God, but the daily choice to live for him. I can’t be the only one living a life that’s outwardly devoted to Christ but inwardly dictated more by habit than holiness.
With the call to return, Jesus asks us to live like it’s true. Like it’s true that he loves us, true that he died for us, true that we’ve handed our lives over to him. We may not be able to live every day the way we did in our first flush of fervor, but we can allow fasting to remind us that we’re not in control. We can give alms in a way that pinches just a little, our eyes fixed on a God whose love hurt him far more. We can step back from our prayer lives for a moment and ask ourselves if we’re giving God the space to move our stony hearts, to fill us with the love we had at first.
Don’t be a Pharisee this Lent, caught up in fulfilling the letter of the law and congratulating yourself on your righteousness. Go before the Lord and ask him to tear down the walls you’ve built around yourself. How do food or social media or bad habits insulate you from his love? How can he pry open your hands that cling to money that could save your brother and sister? How have you blinded yourself to his call, refusing to give him time to speak in your life? Stop rending your garments and rend your hearts. Return to the love you had at first.
Meg Hunter-Kilmer writes for her blog “Held by His Pierced Hands” and travels around the country speaking to youth and adults, leading retreats and parish missions. In this series on “A Year in the Word,” she selects passages from sacred scripture to memorize and make one’s own.