Rend Your Hearts, Not Your Garments
First Sunday of Advent
What good is a broken heart?
Those of us who have been raised on popular music and movies know that broken hearts are a perennial problem, and a well that even after all these years writers and directors can return to again and again to sell more tickets or records or downloads. In these instances, of course, the broken heart has an instrumental rather than an intrinsic value. It is considered valuable because of its money-making potential, not in and of itself. Nobody wants to experience a broken heart, but the phenomenon is such a common element of what it means to be human that we all are drawn to descriptions of somebody else’s pain. If it hasn’t happened to us yet, it almost assuredly will one day, and when that happens, it’s reassuring to know that somebody else gets it. People who are in touch with their emotions may even cry when they see those movies or hear those songs, thereby experiencing catharsis.
But what about the broken heart itself? What good can we possibly find in such a painful occurrence? Isn’t broken-heartedness something we should try to avoid at all costs?
Apparently not, at least as far as the prophet Joel is concerned. And not as far as God is concerned, if Joel has heard the message from God correctly. Instead of counseling the people he is addressing to steer clear of circumstances that might break one’s heart, the prophet specifically tells them to seek out broken-heartedness. He writes, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (vv. 12–13, emphasis added). A striking metaphor, to be sure, and it cuts against the grain of how we generally approach life. When you think about it, that is a pretty good indication that we ought to pay attention.
For the ancient Israelites, tearing one’s garments is a sign of deep distress or terror. When King Ahaz hears about the invasion of Judah, for instance, he tears his clothes. It is his way of dramatizing how serious the threat is, and how ill-equipped he is to deal with it. People might also tear their clothes when a loved one dies or some other calamity befalls them or their family. When Job gets the report that his livestock have been stolen, his servants put to the sword, and his children killed in a freak accident, the writer says, “Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground” (Job 1:20).
For Joel and his fellow Israelites, the issue is locusts. An unprecedented swarm of locusts has descended on the land, blocking out the light of the sun and devouring everything in their path. Joel uses military imagery to describe them: “Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall…. Each keeps to its own track; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief” (Joel 2:7–9). An invasion such as this, about which the prophet can say, “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness” (Joel 2:3), is surely reason to tear one’s clothes.
Here’s where it gets problematic. If not problematic, then at least … challenging. In verse 11 the prophet identifies the commander of this destructive army as none other than God. He writes, “The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command.” At this point, the Israelites have not yet developed a dualistic theology that will allow them to blame negative circumstances on a devil the way we sometimes do. Neither did they have recourse to alternative gods to play the role of troublemaker or destroyer. That’s the drawback of monotheism: God may get the credit for blessings, but God also gets the blame for the bad stuff. When you’re only dealing with one deity, you have to accept both the bad and the good from that god’s hand.
In this sense Joel resembles the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who declare that the Babylonian Exile is not a matter of Ancient Near Eastern geopolitics and the rise and fall of empires, but rather a punishment from God for the people’s idolatry and unfaithfulness. Joel believes that God has ordained this terrible plague of locusts and, although he does not name any specific offenses, he calls on the people to repent and return to God. “Who knows,” the prophet wonders, “whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?” (v. 14). In the hope of that eventuality, Joel extols the people to “blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people” (v. 15). He says, “rend your hearts, not your clothing.”
The reason the prophet gives for this hope is a credal formula that appears in various places throughout the Old Testament. He says, “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (v. 13). It is on the basis of God’s grace and mercy that Joel holds out hope for deliverance. Even though he understands the author of this calamity to be God, he knows that the only one who can take it away is that same God, and he sees God’s character—as slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—as the sole source of hope for the people.
So he counsels them not to bother with tearing their clothing in anguish, but rather to rend their hearts. He declares that a broken heart does indeed have intrinsic value, because its very brokenness indicates that there is some hope for it. One of the primary metaphors in the Bible for people who are utterly impervious to God’s entreaties is hard-heartedness, so if the people can still rend their hearts through repentance, all is not lost. As Leonard Cohen once observed, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The first Sunday of Advent is traditionally considered the Sunday of Hope. In the following weeks our worship will be guided, at least in part, by the attributes of Peace, Joy, and Love, but today is all about Hope. When you think about it, however, hope is the foundation of the entire season of Advent. We place ourselves in the shoes of the prophets and dreamers of old, who longed and hoped for the day the Messiah would come. The fulfillment of that hope we celebrate at Christmas. But we also look ahead, standing in our own shoes, to the day of fulfillment when Jesus will return and bring the reign of God to the whole cosmos. Hope is what sustains us in our time of waiting. Hope is what gives us the strength to keep working for justice and peace, trusting that in doing so we are cooperating with God.
I’ve got good news and bad news for you today, and they’re both the same: a broken heart is a necessary antecedent to our working in partnership with God in this way. That’s bad news because, well, who wants a broken heart? It hurts when we see evil and injustice prevail. It hurts when we witness the darkening clouds of hate and intolerance and war blocking out the light like a mighty swarm of locusts. It hurts when we see the dire effects of our culture’s addiction to greed and violence in the lives of real people and in the very fabric of the created world. And it especially hurts when we recognize that sometimes we ourselves have taken part in these wrongs, or have at least stood idly by while they have been perpetrated.
But that’s why our broken-heartedness is also good news. If our hearts are broken by the world’s pain, if we are able to weep at injustice or needless death or famine, if we still feel the sting of sorrow and shame at our own complicity, then there is still hope for us. We are not beyond the reach of God’s grace and mercy. If we can still be cracked open, the light can still get in.
Nobody likes a broken heart. But at least when we feel our heart breaking we know that it’s still pumping. The dead feel no pain, and hard-heartedness is very much akin to death. Of course, when our hearts are too tender, we cannot protect ourselves, so there is something to be said for stepping away from the heartbreaking pain of the world from time to time. But only for a time. To be immersed in the world is to feel the pain of those cracks, and it is our calling to be immersed in the world. We are called to incarnate the grace and steadfast love of Jesus Christ in our time and place, just as Jesus incarnated God’s grace and love when he came the first time. As St. Theresa notes in her famous prayer, “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good…. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
I would add, Christ has no heart now on earth but yours. Let that heart break for the suffering and sin of the world. Don’t rend your garments; rend your heart. Let the light in.