Broken heart. It’s an interesting turn of phrase. It refers to love betrayed. Where once the heart was healthy and whole, it is now damaged, trampled, broken by the disregard or willful harm of one we love. We’ve all experienced at one time or another the feeling of having our hearts broken by lovers, children, or friends. The pain of a broken heart is searing.
Holy Scripture is rife with accounts of God’s own heart being broken by his children, who repeatedly refuse to respond to his gracious love. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sums up the sentiments of God’s heart when he cries “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you would not let me!”
And yet, there is another sense in which the heart can be broken, and, indeed, in this second sense it needs to be broken.
Holy Scripture speaks of the ways in which the human heart can be hardened, turned into something like stone. The hardening of the heart can result either from having our own hearts repeatedly broken or from the pain we have caused others, becoming callous as again and again we break their hearts. Either way, love and life cannot flow through the hardened heart. When the heart is hardened, spiritual and emotional health diminish, and we find ourselves cut off from God and one another.
Paradoxically, the only way to heal a hardened heart is for it to be broken open and shed of its stony shell. In large part, that it what the season of Lent intends to do: to break our hearts so that they may again be touched by God. Oscar Wilde grasps this in his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:
…And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.
Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?
This Lent, may our hearts break wide open, and may the Lord Christ enter in so that our hearts beat again in love with joy.