Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentines and Ashes

Ash Wednesday 2018
What a strange day this day is, so full of contradiction. Let’s start with the fact that this Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day. So, right off the bat, the contradiction leads to a choice: do we wear hearts or crosses of ash today, or both?
The hearts, of course, are a lot more fun to wear, as a symbol of love, they abound on this secular holiday that celebrates love and passion. The ashes? Well, the crosses of ash we will each be wearing shortly will lead us in solemn procession into Lent, but the thing is, they also attest to love – and to passion; for it is for the deep, passionate, consuming love of humankind that the cross bore our sins on the person of Jesus Christ.
Valentine’s Day lasts for one day, so fleeting a holiday is it. Lent comprises a whole season in the liturgical year; we will journey through Lent for the next forty days, not including the Sundays.
Valentine’s Day focuses on loving relationships, whether they be friend to friend, or lover to lover. Christians around the world participate in heightened practices of devotion during Lent; we think about our relationship with God, and consider how to make that relationship more central to our lives.
While Valentine’s Day isn’t nearly as significant, for our faith, as Ash Wednesday, it can, nonetheless, shed a new light on this important day that welcomes us into the season of Lent.
We largely know Valentine’s Day by its modern accoutrements:
Chocolate. Flowers. Hallmark.
But the history of the holiday—at least what is known of it—is quite different.
Valentine’s Day is the feast day for three different saints recognized by the Catholic church, all with the name of Valentine. All three were martyred—killed because of their faith.
            One of these saints, and probably the best known of the three, was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When the Emperor decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. The priest, whose name was Valentine, seeing injustice in the decree, defied the Emperor and continued to perform marriages for young couples in secret. When his actions were discovered, the Emperor ordered that he be put to death.
Another Valentine was purportedly killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were beaten and tortured. And a third man by that name is believed to have healed the blindness of the daughter of his own jailer, but when the authorities heard of it, they sentenced him to death.
So, the holiday that Hallmark has made all about love and flowers and chocolate and gifts really started with death. Three deaths, actually; each came on the heels of sacrificial lives, deaths that were caused by a Valentine’s commitment to living out his faith for the sake of the other, and for the sake of Christ. So, maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have more in common than it seems at first glance.
For Ash Wednesday, too, has its roots in death.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return are the words spoken to each of us as the cross is imposed in ashes on our forehead.
As Ash Wednesday leads our entry into Lent we, in the church, face the tomb, Jesus’ and our own, aware of our own mortality and sin…
…seeking forgiveness, and the promise of light on the other side.
The shape of the cross that is traced on our brows today is itself a symbol of death—and yet, the ashes we bear today are more than just a symbol. They are a reminder that one day, sooner or later, whatever riches we’ve built up, whatever accomplishments we’ve amassed, whatever memories we’ve created, however many hearts we’ve broken or mended, we will all meet the same end. Death, they say, is the great equalizer.
Like these left-over remnants of last year’s Palm Sunday, burned away to ash, we, too, will be smudges on the earth. So, there we are – ashes to ashes, beginning and end, stuff of creation and remnant of decay, even the ashes after which we name this day represent a contradiction – they speak of both life and death.
Our reality is that dirt and death, loss and sin and sorrow, are an integral part of our lives. Ash Wednesday names this truth through ritual that reminds us that we are made from earth and will one day return to earth; reminds us that our span of life on this planet is so very, very short.
This ritual, and these truths, help us ask important questions:
Am I really making the most of this limited time I have? Am I using the gifts I’ve been given to live in a meaningful way? Or am I frittering life away in shallow pursuits of temporal pleasures?
            And yet, the saving grace of this day is that the ashes with which we are marked aren’t only a sign of death.
Because our God is a God who creates LIFE out of dust. Indeed, God created the first human by breathing God’s breath into the dirt. And while these ashes are marked in the shape of the cross, an instrument of death, by the grace of our God, it is also a profound symbol of new life, for Christ has conquered death, sin, and the devil, once and for all time.
The ashen mark made on our brow is the same mark made, with oil, in baptism when we are blessed with the words “You are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.”
By the cross, through the cross, with the cross, God’s promises and grace carry us from death to life, time and time again, as we daily die to sin, and are raised again to new life in Christ.
The disciplines of Lent are not, therefore for show. Rather, they invite us into a death of sorts—a death to self, a death to all our selfish desires and inclinations—that we may be raised to the kind of life God intends for each of us; the kind of life that truly is life:
            loosing the bonds of injustice,
                        letting the oppressed go free,
                                    sharing bread with the hungry,
                                                and caring for the homeless poor.
The kind of life Lent invites us to, is life is life lived in imitation of Christ—
Who loved the world so much that He died on the cross for you and me and all of creation.
            On Ash Wednesday, we take time to acknowledge our mortality and our sin, to admit and confess all the ways we fall short of the glory of God, and to repent, and change our ways. We bless these ashes, and wear them on our brow, to remind us that we, too, are part of the cycle of life begun by God.
            God, who does not leave us in the ashes, but renews us continually with creative, redeeming power, that we might more and more become the people God created us to be, that we might experience more and more of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Remember that you are dust, And to dust you shall return.
You are beloved dust that has been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever, And thus is given new life,
Today, and everyday.

Let us pray.
In thy word, Lord, is my trust,
To thy mercies fast I fly;
Though I am but clay and dust,
Yet thy grace can lift me high – Thomas Campion, 1567-1620

No comments:

Post a Comment