The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and this year by a quirk of the calendar Ash Wednesday falls on February 14th, Valentine’s Day. And I have a feeling that many people would say that if there are two days that rally don’t go together, it is these two days. I mean, with its focus on repentance and serious and often solemn mood, Ash Wednesday is just not associated with mushy cards or a dozen roses or a big box of chocolates or a romantic dinner out and certainly not with sparkly things that go around wrists or on fingers. Or to put it another way, if you have a special valentine, I’m not sure he or she would think that repenting of sins, having ashes smeared on the forehead, and singing what might seem to be a rather dreary hymn would be the perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day!
But these two days actually go together better than you might think because both are about love. At the heart of both is a lover declaring love for the beloved. And really that’s what is at the heart of Lent itself because the story that is heard throughout Lent is in fact a love story. That’s what the story of the cross is: a story of a lover giving all for the sake of the beloved.
Somewhere along the line we’ve come to believe that Ash Wednesday and all of Lent are about us and our badness, us and our sinfulness and the need to repent. But the thing is, before all else, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about God and God’s goodness, not us and our badness. They are about God’s love for his people, calling them to return to him, welcoming them home. They are about God the lover declaring his love for his beloved even though the relationship between them has been shattered by the foolishness and faithlessness of the beloved, declaring that he loves his beloved still and will give all to heal and restore the relationship. Without God’s goodness, without God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness, there is no returning, no going home, no point to repenting.
And we do need to return, that’s for sure, go home, repent in the sense of turning away from all that is destroying us and turn back toward God. As a nation, a culture, we certainly need to return, return to valuing certain virtues and practices. One of the strangest things about our culture is that there are many good and kind and giving people and yet money and meanness are defining us more and more. Not only that, there is still so much anger and fear about — more than ever, and so little joy or even hope. And we remain a deeply divided people. You can’t help but feel that we are lost in many respects, far from home, wandering. When was the last time you heard someone described as being an “honorable” person or a person of “character” or having a “moral compass” or having “courage” or being “trustworthy”? And when was the last time you heard the words “the hungry” or “the homeless” coming from the mouth of a politician or public figure and spoken with compassion? And the “poor” — heard anyone talk about them lately without contempt or derision? I won’t even mention the word “refuge”. This is not who we are. We need to return to who we are at our best, to the virtues that define what it means to be at our best, and come home, home to kindness and compassion and being the good self we can be, and turn away from the meanness and anger, the fear and prejudice that so divides and destroys, turn back toward God and learn again what truly gives hope and what makes for peace. The joy of that.
And what would help more than anything would be for Christians to return, return to being Christian. That’s the strangest thing of all: when you hear many Christians talk, public religious in particular, you realize that their beliefs and behavior have far more to do with money and politics and power than with Jesus and the gospels, and they can be as mean as the next person, more so. Christians need to return to being Christian, come home to Jesus and the gospels, turn back toward God and practice again the beliefs and virtues that make a Christian a Christian and show the way toward hope, peace. The joy of that.
Which brings me back to Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day and how nicely they go together. Both are about being loved and loving another: being loved by God and return to loving God; and being loved by another and loving in return. And that’s where hope and joy begin and what hope and look like day after day: being loved by God and another; loving God and one another.
I would never dream of suggesting, however, that the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day would be to attend an Ash Wednesday communion service. Then again, in the early church communion was referred to as being a “Love Feast.” And so…
God be with you,