“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him…?” (Joel 2:12–14a, NASB)
On a sunny February morning last year, during a spiritual retreat, I climbed up to the basilica that overlooks Marseille’s Old Port. My intent was to enjoy the view and find a quiet sunny place to read. After a while, the chilly Mistral won out over the winter sun, so I decided to go inside the basilica. I had lost all track of time and calendar, so I was surprised to find an Ash Wednesday mass just starting. I decided to stay.
The priest spoke from this text from Joel: “return to the Lord.” He said that while we usually think of Lent as a period of negative things (fasting, weeping, repenting, deprivation), it is really about one giant positive thing—returning to the Lord to enjoy restored fellowship with Him. At the end of the mass I did something I’ve never done before: I received the cross marked in ashes on my forehead. It was a profound moment and I felt as if that cross and the prophet’s injunction were both engraved on my heart.
As I’ve continued to meditate on this passage throughout the year, I’m astonished at the lengths to which God goes to pursue us and restore a relationship which we humans seem more prone to flee. Joel’s plea to return to the Lord comes, just as well-deserved judgment is about to be unleashed; yet even as God’s punishment marches toward the people, it is not too late to repent and return! God would prefer a restored relationship to dishing out judgment.
This year as Lent begins, I’m remembering the priest’s words: it’s more about something positive than about something negative. Calvin Miller* puts this another way: “Christians are not to be so much quitters as starters...Quitting involves a cathexis that is focused on what…to quit. Those who focus on Christ rarely have to quit anything, because their desire for union with Christ prohibits them from starting anything they might later want to quit.” Return to the Lord! In other words, let my desire for Him grow so big that it crowds out every other thing!
Perhaps you are engaged in some kind of fasting or another form of spiritual discipline during Lent. That is good and appropriate; Joel calls Israel to fasting and mourning, indicating heartfelt repentance. We, too, need to understand and mourn the weight of our sin. But as we walk through this part of the journey, let’s remember that Christ has pursued us, all the way to the cross. Good Friday and Easter are about His call to “return” and enter into the joyful, intimate relationship with Him that He desires.
Warmly in Christ,
“Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him. “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; and He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth.” (Hosea 6:1-3, NASB)
In what area(s) is God calling you to return to Him? If you are ready for heartfelt repentance in this area, affirm with Hosea, “COME! Let us return to the Lord!”
Are you a “quitter”? What do you need to “quit quitting”? How can this negative effort be turned toward “pressing on to know the Lord”?
What is the difference between “knowing the Lord” and “pressing on to know the Lord”? Might the Lenten period (and/or any of the spiritual practices typically associated with it) help you to lean into your relationship with Christ in some new way?
*Calvin Miller, “The Disciplined Life”