In the Epistle reading on Ash Wednesday we have these verses from the prophet Joel:
Now therefore saith the Lord: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil. Who knoweth but he will return, and forgive, and leave a blessing behind him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. — Joel 2:12-15
Rending of garments, donning sackcloth, and sprinkling ashes on the head were Hebrew customs expressing great sorrow over grave evils or as a sign of repentance for sin. Scripture does not tell us where or why the ancient custom of the practice of garment tearing originated, only that, at the time of Moses it was forbidden for the priests to rend their garments:
The high priest, that is to say, the priest, is the greatest among his brethren upon whose head the oil of unction hath been poured, and whose hands have been consecrated for the priesthood, and who hath been vested with the holy vestments, shall not uncover his head, he shall not rend his garments. — Leviticus 21:10
Even though Ash Wednesday is now past, in this short column I want to write a few words on the rending of garments, specifically because, even though many holy people (and a few unholy characters) did do this in the Old Testament, God said to Joel that this act meant nothing if it did not express interior penitence of the heart. And that is a sentiment we ought to have throughout this penitential season of Lent.
The earliest account in the Bible of rending of garments was in the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, whose brothers threw him into a pit out of jealousy. Rueben, the eldest of the twelve sons of Jacob, as you may remember, had to plead that his brothers spare the young one’s life, and so they did, intending, instead, as a lesser evil, that the nomadic Ismaelites passing by would take him as a slave. Rueben, however, had planned to come back alone and rescue his brother and restore him to his father. When Rueben returned to the pit it was too late. Joseph was already taken by passing Madianites who took him to Egypt. In great sorrow Rueben then “rent his garments.” And, afterwards, when the brothers reported the lie to their father that Joseph had been killed by a beast, Jacob rent his garments and put on sackcloth. The sons of Jacob later rent their own garments in Egypt when they discovered the gold chalice of Pharaoh in Benjamin’s sack.
Other instances of the custom include David rending his garments upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, Eliseus doing so when Elias was taken away in the fiery chariot (Elias, however, as he ascended, dropped his own tunic for his disciple), King Achab (who added sackcloth and ashes) when Elias warned him that God would strike him dead unless he repented of his robbery of another man’s vineyard, and the messenger who came to the priest Heli with his garment rent and dust on his head to tell him of the loss of the battle with the Philistines, that his two wicked sons, Ophni and Phinees, were killed, and that the ark of the covenant had been taken by the enemy. Heli, who was guilty of not disciplining his sons, fell back in his chair upon hearing the terrible news and broke his neck and died. David also rent his garments (so did his servants) another time when he heard that his rebellious son Absalom had killed his brothers. There are several other instances of this tearing of vestments in the Old Testament in the wake of bad news or upon receiving some heavy physical affliction, both by the good and the wicked. Job, when he was informed that his children had been killed when a whirlwind collapsed the house in which they were inordinately feasting, he rent his garments.
According to what I have been able to discover, this tearing of the vesture was done with great emotion, ripping the garment apart from the collar, which the Jews wore quite open, down past the heart. There was sometimes a seam in the front to make it easier so that the tear was done properly and could be easily mended. The Jews even today begin the ceremonial “rending” (keriah), down to the heart, at the funeral of a deceased. Actually, the chief mourner does his own tearing after someone else starts the cut with a knife.
In the New Testament Saints Paul and Barnabas rent their garments when the people of Lystra began to worship them.
Finally, and this brings me to my point, the high priest, Caiphas, rent his garments when Jesus affirmed that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. “Then the high priest rent his garments, saying: He hath blasphemed; what further need have we of witnesses? Behold, now you have heard the blasphemy” (Matthew 26:65).
The rending of garments ought to have been an expression of indignation upon hearing that something holy had been profaned (as in the seizing of the ark of the covenant by the Philistines) yet, here the priests are indignant with Holiness Himself and Truth Himself. The rending of their vestments expresses physically their word of blasphemy against Christ, which proceeds from their evil hearts.
There has been much discussion as to whether or not Caiphas here violated the Levitical prohibition, cited earlier, against the high priest rending his garments. Some say he could in extreme cases (like blasphemy), while others think that it was the tearing of the priestly vestments themselves (not his ordinary garments) that was forbidden. In his commentary on the relevant passage, cited in Saint Thomas’ Catena Aurea, Saint Bede the Venerable advances the opinion that Caiphas was guilty of rending his priestly ephod. Bede then goes on to give a much deeper spiritual reading of the event when contrasted with Christ’s “seamless garment” being left intact by the soldiers:
But it was also with a higher mystery, that in the Passion of our Lord the Jewish priest rent his own clothes, that is, his ephod, whilst the garment of the Lord could not be rent, even by the soldiers, who crucified Him. For it was a figure that the Jewish priesthood was to be rent on account of the wickedness of the priests themselves. But the solid strength of the Church, which is often called the garment of her Redeemer, can never be torn asunder.
There was one more “rending” that occurred during the Passion. This was the rending of the veil in the temple that separated the holy place from the holy of holies when Our Lord expired on the Cross. This veil was six layers thick, as I remember reading it was about twelve inches in depth. It was severed by an angel from the top to the bottom and the sound of it was heard not only in the temple but all around nearby. The priests who were just then blaspheming Christ on Calvary all heard the noise and could see the torn veil from the holy place. Did these hypocrites then rend their own garments rather than their hearts? Probably so, for the temple meant more to them than Him whose “house” it was in figure. The Heart of Jesus is invoked in the Litany of the Sacred Heart as “House of God and Gate of Heaven.”
That curtain which veiled God’s presence in the temple might be called His garment. God himself — working through his ministering spirits — rent His own garment, as if weeping the death of His Son. Yet that most holy death was also the sacrifice pleasing to the Father. In union with the Crucified one, our own heart rending can be efficacious unto life everlasting. Ah, even the rocks were unable to contain their grief, being rent throughout the whole earth during the earthquake when Jesus died
Throughout Lent, indeed always, let us rend our hearts not our garments. This is the deeper meaning of the command to “do penance.” All fasting, all almsgiving, all acts of charity, and any mortifications we do, must be founded upon a rending of our hearts.
I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins: who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices. — Jeremias 17:10