Earlier this week the New York Times pointed out that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day would coincide this year for the first time since 1945, and raised the issue of the tension this coincidence can cause for some Christians, perhaps most especially Roman Catholics. For, as everybody knows, Valentine’s Day is a day of chocolate and flowers and romance, for candlelight dinners out, for indulgence, especially for indulging the one you love. But, as everybody knows, Ash Wednesday is a day of somber self-denial, of bread and water, of deciding what to give up for Lent, of being reminded that you are dust and to dust you shall return; it’s the day of the dark smudge on your head, which is meant, I guess, to help you remember not to indulge in much of anything. It is a most un-romantic day.
So what’s to be done? And what am I to say to you that could make a difference to you today, as you contemplate whether or not you should eat chocolate, or take your sweetheart out for an extravagant dinner tonight? Should I tell you that it’s fine as long as you both order fish?
The series of historic developments that deliver to us a day in the church on which we hear in the Gospel Jesus instruct his followers not to disfigure their faces when they fast, only moments before I propose to do the deed of disfigurement for you by placing a smudge of ash on your forehead is convoluted and basically boring. But it is evidence that the church has become accustomed, on this day, to holding opposing ideas in tension. It should not be so hard for us to decide that it is OK to keep Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday, and vice versa.
But we in the church have often embraced finger-wagging. And a great deal of church history involves accusations that you sinful people are pretty awful, but if you do what I, speaking on behalf of the church, tell you to do, you might, just might, escape the fires of hell, where your immortal soul would be forever tortured. And now I feel compelled to wonder whether or not I must warn you that a box of chocolates enjoyed illicitly today, or a steak dinner tonight will indeed put the salvation of your immortal soul at risk. I believe this has often been the role of the priest on Ash Wednesday, after all, you are dust and to dust you shall return, so you’d better be careful!
But when I try to think this way, I am reminded how scarce in the world is the good news that God loves you with great tenderness, and with a love that is more profound than any other love that you or I shall ever know. And it seems perverse to me, on a day that is meant to be all about love, to fail to remind you of this great love that God has for you.
And if you are lucky enough to be looking forward to celebrating this day with someone with whom you are absolutely smitten, then you do, in fact, need a reminder from this pulpit. You need to be reminded that God’s love for you is more complete, more wonderful, and more true than even the love you feel for the person to whom you will, I hope, give flowers (and maybe even chocolates) at some point today.
If Ash Wednesday presents to you only a God who is a killjoy in your life, then this would be a terrible way to begin Lent, since the message of God’s love is that he sent his Son to you (and me) so that his joy might be in you, and your joy might be complete. The reminder of our shared mortality - that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return - means little to those of us who follow Jesus, if it is not accompanied by the assurance of his love. What can save us from a destiny that amounts to nothing but dust? Only the love of God who formed us out of the dust, and filled us with the breath of his Spirit, and sent his Son to us to share with us the gift of life after ashes. And what could be more hypocritical of me today than to encourage you to put aside expressions of love on the very day that God asks us to spend a season of forty days pondering his love.
So if you go out to dinner tonight. Maybe order fish, maybe don’t. Maybe share a desert, maybe don’t. But gaze into the eyes of one you love, and remember to give thanks to the One who made you for love’s sake, and whose love will lead you to life after everything else has been reduced to ashes. And stop for a minute to consider that you have forty whole days now, to reflect on love. You might as well make the most of it!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Ash Wednesday 2018
Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia