Rend Your Hearts Not Your Garments
Ash Wednesday Scripture Readings
In one of my recent homilies, I made a distinction between Ethical Christianity and Spiritual Christianity. Take note: it’s an important, if not critical distinction. Ethical Christianity is concerned with behavior—good and bad, right and wrong, helpful and hurtful. For Ethical Christianity, sin is defined as unacceptable behavior. Penance, as a remedy for sin, becomes reduced to acts of self-denial like fasting, giving stuff up, and almsgiving. They’re the sorts of things Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel reading. Yet, since Ethical Christianity focuses on external behaviors, it easily degenerates into superficiality, formalism, legalism, judgmentalism, arrogance, and self-satisfaction. It’s the kind of Christianity that I, and almost all children, were brought up on. It works for kids—like training wheels on a bike—but fails entirely to address adult situations and issues.
Spiritual Christianity is not primarily concerned with externals. It focuses solely on the affairs of the mind and heart. Spirituality, after all, is the realm of connection and relationship. Spirituality is what defines our connection to God and our relationships with our fellow human beings. There’s nothing superficial about Spiritual Christianity. Jesus, the gospel writers, and even Saint Paul refused to reduce following the Christ to a laundry list of dos and don’ts. Their message is clear: if your mind and heart are focused on God and others, your behavior will follow naturally. You won’t need to think about it, you won’t need a bunch of rules and regulations to guide you—even the Ten Commandments—and you’ll instinctively know the right thing to do in any circumstance. Likewise, for Spiritual Christianity, sin is a rupture in your connection to God and others. Bad behavior is merely a symptom of that rupture.
Although for a child or someone just beginning their spiritual journey, focusing on behavior can be helpful to kickstart a spiritual life—a kind of “fake it ‘till you make it” approach. But, for a mature Christian, ethical behavior is the result of a mental and emotional commitment to spirituality, not its cause. What you give up this Lent has little significance. Self-denial in itself isn’t a virtue. Instead, consider what you might focus on this Lent to deepen your connection to God and your relationships with others. Hear the words of the Prophet Joel [2:13]: “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.” If you do this, your Lenten observance will strengthen your connection to God and bring you that much closer to becoming a channel of God’s grace for all those with whom you come in contact. That’s the promise of Spiritual Christianity, the promise of Lent, and the promise of Easter.
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