Wednesday of the First Week of Lent
JON 3: 1-10
PS 51: 3-4, 12-13, 18-19
LK 11: 29-32
A few weeks ago I attended a prayer service at my daughter’s preschool. “Open your heart to his heart,” the children sang, “let it be a part of the life you live for him…welcome his Sacred Heart!” The tears welled up in my eyes as I watched these sweet and innocent little ones joyfully and confidently offering their hearts to Jesus in song. They know what we at times forget: that he will not refuse them.
In today’s first reading, we are told that Jonah called the people of Ninevah to repentance, and that all the inhabitants, starting with the king himself, clothed themselves in sackcloth and began a fast in the hope that God would “relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath” so that they should not perish. This passage, read through the lens of Psalm 51, gives insight into what Lenten sacrifice is intended to accomplish in us.
Too often, I think, we catch ourselves musing over what we’ll “give up” for Lent, as though our mortifications will somehow earn God’s forgiveness. But the psalmist, singing to God, shatters our petty theories of transactional forgiveness: “For you are not pleased with sacrifices; / should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.” God’s compassion and mercy, and not our own offerings, wipe out our offenses, cleanse our hearts, and wash us of our guilt. What, then, does God want from us? “A heart contrite and humbled,” the psalmist says, “you will not spurn.” Herein lies the beauty of sacrifice: God doesn’t want your chocolate, or your FaceBook account, or your happy hour. To be sure, fasting from all of these things can be a healthful exercise in removing the distractions that keep you from giving God your heart. But it’s important to keep in mind that that’s what he wants: He wants your heart, your heart that, like all of our hearts, is broken and bruised because as Saint Paul reminds us, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). He wants to make it whole and clean; all you have to do is surrender it to him.
The ever-eloquent Caryll Houselander sums it up beautifully in her book This War Is the Passion when she explains the meaning of sacrifice. In telling the story of an eleven year old girl asked to teach a four year old child to “make a sacrifice,” Houselander relates that the girl taught the little boy to make the Sign of the Cross: “Asked why this should be a sacrifice, she answered with supreme wisdom, ‘Because for a little minute he gives all of himself to God.’” This imperative to “give all of oneself to God” is the reason, she explains, that we must always give something up: “the offering of ourselves is a complete offering, it means a whole attention, a whole concentration, a whole donation.” We thus fast from our attachment to things of various kinds so that we can approach God with our whole selves.
How much harder it is, as an adult, to approach God with the childlike confidence of the children at my daughter’s preschool, offering him our hearts. “I’m not good enough,” we think. We make excuses, telling ourselves, “God couldn’t possibly want my heart; I’m too broken,” or we find it impossible to relinquish control of our hearts for fear of the pain of rejection. Yet this is precisely what Lenten preparation entails, and what today’s scripture readings exhort us to do: “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart for I am gracious and merciful.” And how can we refuse when Jesus calls to us? The gospel reading tells us that the Queen of Sheba and the people of Ninevah both responded to God’s call through the wisdom of Solomon and Jonah’s preaching, respectively. We, however, have something far greater in our midst: Jesus himself, offering his own perfect heart on the cross so that we might have the courage to offer our own wounded and broken ones to God alongside him. Sometimes, that is the hardest sacrifice of all.
Yvonne Angieri Klein is a second year PhD student in Historical Theology studying Patristics.