The Collect for Ash Wednesday, which may be used throughout the season, asks God to give us “new and contrite hearts.”
The renewal of our true and innermost being—symbolized by the heart in biblical language—can only happen by a kind of surgical re-shaping (contrition means “to wear down” or to “grind away”). This is one of the main purposes of Lent, and each year we are called to take seriously where God is calling us to open our lives to his providential, careful work of healing and softening hardened, sick hearts.
The passage below is from one of the earliest extant Christian documents, perhaps even older than some of the books of the New Testament in their final form. It is from a letter written by the Bishop of Rome to the Christians of Corinth when their internal dissention had risen like a thundercloud on the horizon of the Church’s mission. Their divisions were hurting the common life of the Body, and Clement sought to do the work of a true pastor: open the eyes of the flock to the truth of their situation, giving them the remedy. Like all Christians, they stood in need of repentance when they had lost their way.
The season of Lent is, to a certain degree, a renewal of our sense of eagerness for the Kingdom of God, something early Christians knew and felt with great naturalness. Such eagerness exposes everything adverse to God’s way of love, exposing it to view and inviting the Master Surgeon to remove the cancer of sin, wherever it grows. It is that heartfelt desire Lent seeks to rekindle in us, for this season and beyond.
If we want as individuals and as a community to experience something of the transforming grace and motivating energy of ancient and authentic Christianity, we must offer ourselves for the same surgical procedure without delay. For, as Scripture says, “now is the acceptable time,” and a new and healed heart awaits us…our very lives depend on it!
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Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ and recognize how precious it is to God his Father, since it was shed for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to all the world.
If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who were willing to turn to him. When Noah preached God’s message of repentance, all who listened to him were saved. Jonah told the Ninevites they were going to be destroyed, but when they repented, their prayers gained God’s forgiveness for their sins, and they were saved, even though they were not of God’s people.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the ministers of God’s grace have spoken of repentance; indeed, the Master of the whole universe himself spoke of repentance with an oath: As I live, says the Lord, I do not wish the death of the sinner but his repentance. He added this evidence of his goodness: House of Israel, repent of your wickedness. Tell the sons of my people: If their sins should reach from earth to heaven, if they are brighter than scarlet and blacker than sackcloth, you need only turn to me with your whole heart and say, “Father”, and I will listen to you as a holy people.
In other words, God wanted all his beloved ones to have the opportunity to repent and he confirmed this desire by his own almighty will. That is why we should obey his sovereign and glorious will and prayerfully entreat his mercy and kindness. We should be suppliant before him and turn to his compassion, rejecting empty works and quarrelling and jealousy which only lead to death.
Brothers, we should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger. Rather, we should act in accordance with the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit says: The wise man must not glory in his wisdom nor the strong man in his strength nor the rich man in his riches. Rather, let him who glories glory in the Lord by seeking him and doing what is right and just. Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance. Be merciful, he said, so that you may have mercy shown to you. Forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you treat others, so you will be treated. As you give, so you will receive. As you judge, so you will be judged. As you are kind to others, so you will be treated kindly. The measure of your giving will be the measure of your receiving.
Let these commandments and precepts strengthen us to live in humble obedience to his sacred words. As Scripture asks: Whom shall I look upon with favor except the humble, peaceful man who trembles at my words?
Sharing then in the heritage of so many vast and glorious achievements, let us hasten toward the goal of peace, set before us from the beginning. Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Father and Creator of the whole universe, and hold fast to his splendid and transcendent gifts of peace and all his blessings.
(From The First Letter to the Corinthians, by Clement, Bishop of Rome, c. 100)