On Bended Knee with Our Broken Hearts in Our Hands: a Reflection on the Season of Lent

This is how we approach the love that we have wounded, the love that we have injured, the love that we have neglected or betrayed.  Filled with remorse for the pain that we have caused, hoping beyond hope for forgiveness, we acknowledge the wrong that we have done, we declare our remorse, we proclaim our love, and we promise to change, to live more fully into the relationship that we long to maintain.  We do everything that we can do to be reconciled to the one whom we love.  It is an all too familiar scenario.  Children and parents, husbands and wives, partners in every kind of relationship find themselves in this place; having hurt one another, desperately seeking forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation, longing to mend what has been broken, approaching on bended knee, broken heart in hand.  This is also the posture in which we approach the season of Lent.

We know that we have sinned, that we have failed to live into the relationship that God is offering us and that we long to experience, in the things that we have thought, in the words that we have spoken to one another, and in the things that we have done.  We know that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we know that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We know that we have neglected and betrayed the one who loves us beyond all measure, the one with whom we long to abide in peace and trust.  We know that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, has eluded us because we have not sought, recognized, and nurtured the relationship that brings that peace.  This strain in the relationship which should be at the center of our lives is so difficult to bear that we come to church every week and confess our sins, the ways in which we have fallen short of the life and love that God holds out to us.  Every week, again and again we come to the table with our hands outstretched, trembling at the love and grace that endures, the knowledge that God remains faithful even when we are not.   If we are already confessing, on bended knee, our broken hearts in our hands, why do we set aside the forty days of Lent as a time of “self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting and self-denial; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265)?    I would like to suggest that the season of Lent is not a time for seeking forgiveness.  It is a time to turn our hearts, to change, it is a time for repentance and renewal.

The analogy that I set up earlier in this reflection, of approaching the people in our lives whom we have hurt, seeking their forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation doesn’t quite describe our humble approach to God.  When we have hurt the person whom we love we hope for their forgiveness, but there is a chance that they will refuse us the reconciliation we crave.  There is the chance that they will have had enough of the pain that we inflict.  There is a chance that the relationship will have finally been ruptured beyond repair.  But God loves us so much  that God came among us as one of us, and giving God’s self into our hands, allowed us to choose whether or not to love God in return.  God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, experienced the very worst that is in us when, in our desperation to be rid of God, we nailed him to a tree.  The analogy that I set up at the beginning of this reflection falls short here because, despite our betrayal, God has not abandoned us!  The Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ has proven to us that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Every Sunday when, on trembling knees, we confess our sinful thoughts, words and deeds, the things done and left undone, our failure to love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves, we do so knowing that God is waiting to forgive us and restore us to the light and love for which we are created.  We hear the words that we long to hear, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life”  (BCP p. 360).  It is interesting and important to note that on Ash Wednesday, the day that we venture into the wilderness of Lent, we do not hear those words of absolution.

On Ash Wednesday we confess our sins in the Litany of Penitence (BCP p. 267-269), and then  “the Bishop, if present, or the Priest stands, and facing the people” … declares that God “has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare pardon and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins”  (BCP p. 269).  And then…  that absolution is not conferred!

Just before the peace is exchanged, at the conclusion of the Litany of Penitence, the confession, the Bishop, if present, or the priest says:

 “Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).

Here on Ash Wednesday, as we begin our journey through the season of Lent we are praying for repentance, a turning of the heart, away from the things that damage our relationship with God toward the things that are life-giving, that deepen and nurture that relationship.  Here at the beginning of the season of Lent we are praying for the Holy Spirit, for help and strength as we, acknowledging the great gift that God gives us by lifting the burden of our sins, work to repent, to change!

We all long to hear the words of absolution, to know that we are forgiven, to hear that the relationship is still intact, but absolution is only the beginning of something even harder than asking for forgiveness.   The human analogy will serve us well in this moment.  When we go to our love with our broken heart in our hands we may, on the surface be craving their forgiveness, but what we really are afraid of is the loss of relationship.   What we really long for is the wholeness that comes from being one with another.  Forgiveness, absolution, allows us to remain in the presence of the one we love without shame or fear, but the relationship is only made whole if we repent, turn away from, whatever it was that caused the relationship to be ruptured or strained in the first place.  If the thoughts, words, or deeds that caused the breach continue, then the relationship will continue to be deeply wounded and forgiveness becomes nothing more than a topical analgesic.  We set aside the season of Lent, the forty days preceding Holy Week and the Resurrection as a time for deep healing and true reconciliation.  Lent is a time for change… and that is why, when we ask God to grant us “true repentance” we also ask for God’s Holy Spirit.

The kind of change we are talking about here isn’t something that we can do by force of will, commitment, or by working harder.  The kind of change we are talking about here is only possible through the Grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is only in knowing that we are forgiven, that nothing we can do will ever separate us from the Love of God, that we can set our hearts and minds to the work of repentance, of change.  It is God’s gift, loving us even before we can love God in return that sets us free to acknowledge our faults and shortcomings, our betrayals, our sins, and ask for forgiveness.  It is God’s gift, the presence, guidance, and grace of the Holy Spirit, that helps us to know when we have failed to hit the mark, that helps us to get back on target.  It is only through the strength and courage we receive in knowing that God, through the Holy Spirit, continues to walk this journey with us that we are able to begin the hard work of repentance, amendment of life, of change.

“Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).