This morning as I was flipping through my Washington Post app, I saw an article with the intriguing title “It’s Okay to Go Out on Valentine’s Day.” In my imagination, the article was going to be about the question of whether it is appropriate for Catholics – Roman or Anglican – to go out for a fancy dinner on this particular Valentine’s Day, which also happens to be Ash Wednesday. I imagined an analysis of this year’s liturgical calendar, which amusingly pairs not only Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day but also Easter Day and April Fool’s Day. I imagined a history of the tradition of fasting, a description of different types of fasts, and an expert opinion on whether an intimate dinner for two tonight should include things like champagne, or chocolate truffles, or a porterhouse.
Instead, the article, written by reporter Maura Judkis, is about the disdain with which most foodies, including chefs and others in the food industry, view dining out on Valentine’s Day. This disdain is not directed towards the food itself, although Judkis did dedicate a few paragraphs to the disappointing and disappointingly expensive prix fixe menus many restaurants offer on this holiday. No, the disdain Judkis wrote about is the disdain with which foodies and chefs view the people who go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day. As one chef put it, these people are “a completely different demographic” from their normal customers. These people are those who don’t regularly dine at fine restaurants. These people are those who have had to save up for a nice meal out, for whom “fine dining” conjures up images of surf and turf and chocolate lava cake, not the Sweet Onion Crepe with Parmesan and White Truffle Fondue and Duck with Tardivo, Puntarella, and Sauce Genovese you might find at a restaurant like, say, Vetri.* These people are likely to order their steak well done. They’re likely to ask for Thousand Island dressing. They’re likely to order a glass of white zinfandel or – gasp! – merlot. These diners, some snooty chefs complain, are looking for haute cuisine but wouldn’t know it if they accidentally stabbed it with a fork. And so these chefs give this night a particularly cynical, snobbish nickname: Amateur Night.
Now I saw some of you blanch when I mentioned white zinfandel. And I will confess to you that I myself have rolled an eye a time or two when overhearing people order their steak with no pink and their wine with an ice cube. Thank God that today is a day for confession and repentance, am I right? Judkis has this to say about such snobbery: “Knock it off.” Stop being cynical about people who want to “splurge on stereotypical romantic meals,” she says. Just stop. Knock it off. Go out for Valentine’s Day, she tells her readers, and don’t let anybody talk you out of your white zin. Drink it all, even with an ice cube, and have a lovely night.
Setting aside its decided lack of advice on how to integrate the Lenten fast with the traditional indulgences of Valentine’s Day – a topic we can safely skip because it’s after 7 now, and you’re here, so I’m guessing you’ve figured that out for yourselves – Judkis’s article is an interesting lens with which to view our own experiences of Lent. For who among us has not at some point in our lives felt like a bit of an amateur when it comes to Lenten disciplines? We’re feeling pretty good about deciding to give up diet Coke, but then we hear about someone who’s eating only one meal a day or meditating for three hours every night and suddenly our diet Coke fast seems a little bush-league. We know we’re not supposed to rank our Lenten practices like they were an Olympic sport, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid the comparisons. Because our Lenten practices are important. We know what the season of Lent means to us and to the world, and so we want to do Lent well. Of course we want to find a practice that feels significant, that challenges us, or perhaps that proves that we have a sophisticated palate for self-denial. Who wants to be known as just a “different spiritual demographic” from those saintly souls who really get what Lent is about? Who wants to hear someone in the next pew call this gathering Amateur Night?
Let us take some comfort in the knowledge that there was no greater gathering of spiritual amateurs than the crowds listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These were not professional theologians sitting at Jesus’ feet. These were not the ministers who were trained to stand between the vestibule and the altar and weep. These people were just amateurs. They worshiped, yes. They paid for sacrifices in the temple when they could. They blessed their bread and wine and prayed for God’s guidance and favor and mercy. But for the most part they were completely new at this. Jesus’ entire ministry was new; these people were just beginning to hear and see what Our Lord had to show them. They had hopes, maybe even expectations, but they had no idea what they were getting into; even the spiritual leaders in the crowd, including the disciples, were far from experts.
Jesus knows this. He knows that these people are harassed and helpless and hungry for something they can scarcely define. He knows that they are spiritual amateurs, and yet he feeds them anyway. He feeds them anyway, and with real food. He offers sophisticated sustenance about being blessed even when you suffer. He employs delicate, subtle flavors in his teaching about forgiveness; he brings out the essence of the law which includes not only what the people do or say but also how they think and feel. He offers them real food from a banquet table rich with truth, and he fully expects that even these amateurs will eat. When you pray, he says, not if. When you pray, when you fast, when you give alms – when you practice your faith, always remember the maker who gave you that faith in the first place. And your maker who sees in secret will reward you.
The truth is that we’re all amateurs when it comes to the spiritual life. We’re all looking for things that are truly just a fraction of what God can give. We find ourselves quite happy with the prix fixe because we can’t imagine what might be on the regular menu. We order Thousand Island dressing when God has prepared something far more glorious than just mayo, Worcestershire, and ketchup. We’re total amateurs, and God knows this. He knows that we are hungry for something we can scarcely imagine. He knows this, and he feeds us anyway. He feeds us anyway, and with real food. When we come here looking for small grace, when we come here looking for easy answers, when we come here looking for nothing, when we come here and we don’t know what we’re looking for, God feeds us with nothing less than his whole self, with the body and blood of his only Son Our Lord, given for you and for me.
So blow the trumpet in Zion and call a solemn assembly. For this is Amateur Night, my friends, and the beginning of Amateur Season. For what better time than the season of Lent to remember that our God is gracious and merciful to us, even in those times when we feel like we couldn’t find our faith even if we accidentally stabbed it with a fork? So if you’re worried about being an amateur, knock it off. You are, and that’s okay. If you’re worried that your Lenten disciplines lack even a soupcon of sophistication, knock it off. Who needs sophistication? If you want to fast, fast. If you want to pray more, pray more. If you want to give away more, give away more. Just whatever you decide to do, do it because it will please the God who is madly in love with you. And whatever else you decide to do, please do go out for these next forty days. Go out, go right there to that altar. Don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Eat and drink it all, and have a lovely Lent.
*Yes, I actually did pull these items from Vetri’s current tasting menu.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia