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. (Jl 2:12-13).
This is what we are encouraged to do on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent. But what kind of fasting? Abstaining from chocolate and alcohol, or even meat, is not sufficient. We must fast from harsh words, criticism, anger, and vengeful attitudes, whether towards family members, neighbors, co-workers, and politicians. We must reign in our appetite for real news and fake news, for controversy, for gossip. We must abstain from rash judgments and violence of any kind. This is the fasting we are called to during Lent, especially in this time of turmoil and divisiveness in our nation and in our world.
Why should we weep and mourn? We are being asked to lament all those who are suffering grievously; all victims of intolerance and violence, of persecution and injustice. We should pray for them daily, because in God’s eyes, we are all brothers and sisters. And what happens to any one of us affects all of us, whether for good or ill.
What does it mean to “rend your hearts, not your garments”? We are being instructed to look into those dark, hidden recesses of our hearts that feed our anger, support our resentful attitudes, fuel our bigotry. We are being encouraged to ask forgiveness from God for anything we find in our hearts that is not truly loving. Only then can our hearts be healed and open to experience an outpouring of compassion for every living being on the planet. Only then can our hearts be at peace.
Julian of Norwich was certain that if we beg the Lord for mercy and grace, we will receive it, in great abundance:
For it is the most unpossible [greatest impossibility] that may be that we should seek mercy and grace and not have it. For every thing that our good lord makes us beseech, he himself has ordained it to us from without beginning.
This Lenten Season, let us heed the words of the prophet Joel—and the promise of Julian—and find ways to practice a deeper kind of fasting, a more loving compassion, and a heartfelt contrition every day. Then watch the transformation these practices will effect in our lives by Easter Sunday!