Words on the Word

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18: Come back to me with all your heart!
2 Cor 5:2-6:2: Be reconciled to God!
Mt 6:1-6, 16-18: Your Father sees all that is done in secret.

Doesn’t our first reading ask for two contradictory things? First we hear the exhortation, ‘Come back to me with all your heart!’ Then we are told, ‘Let your hearts be broken.’ How can a single poor heart be at the same time whole and broken?

The whole heart is a symbol we repeatedly find in Scripture. A prayer that moves me deeply is formulated in Psalm 85: ‘unite my heart to fear thy name’ (RSV). Why does it move me? I suppose because I’m conscious that my own heart often lacks the integrity I’d wish for it. It is pulled in different directions. That is why I cannot find peace. It is human to feel distracted, full of conflicting desires. We deeply long for unity. But perhaps we fear it at the same time. Isn’t distraction the price we pay for freedom?

Not necessarily.

As a student of theology, I was struck by something Augustine says about freedom in the Handbook he wrote in his maturity, around 420. Augustine was a man who knew his desires well. He had followed them with gusto. When he speaks of freedom, he speaks with authority. It is impressive, therefore, when he says that the highest form of freedom is not to have choices to make (cf. Enchiridion, 28). At first this seemed to me absurd. What is freedom without choice? Only slowly did it dawn on me what Augustine is saying: I am truly free only when I so fully know what I want that I don’t have to keep weighing up this desirable reality against all sorts of other tempting things.

To be whole-hearted is to know what I really want, then to live accordingly, clearly oriented.

Then what about the broken heart? ‘Broken’ in this context does not mean ‘destroyed’, but ‘broken open’ in the sense, ‘receptive’. The Latin text uses a word [scindere] which can be used to describe earth that has been ploughed. Everyone knows that soil must be got ready before the farmer can sow. Left to itself, earth clumps into units that do not grant access to the seed. In unlabored soil, seeds fall between these clumps into a heap where they rot. The same goes for our hearts. They must be broken open to receive the seed of life which the Lord would sow in them. Lent is a time to resist the hardening of our hearts. That isn’t necessarily comfortable. A receptive heart is vulnerable. But do we want to live armoured lives?

The Church directs our gaze, during this time, towards the image of a God who let himself be wounded unto death in order, then, to reveal his wounds as sources of healing and life.

The attitude that holds together the undivided and the broken heart is repentance. Repentance is not sentimental. Repentance is rational. Repentance is about recognising where I have not measured up to what is rightly demanded of me. God expects a lot from us. He expects a lot because we, with his help (which we can take for granted) are capable of great, even glorious things.

Where am I with regard to what God expects of me? That is a question we may profitably ask ourselves during the blessed forty days that lie before us.


In Christian tradition St Mary Magdalene is the very embodiment of repentance. This is how Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) imagined her thinking carefully through her own life. La Madeleine à la veilleuse, painted around 1640, is in the Louvre. The flame indicates Christ’s everlasting, gladsome light; the skull, the transience of all earthly things.