When Valentine’s Day meets Ash Wednesday 

This year two seeming diametrically opposed holidays share the same date of Feb 14. Although Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday appear to contain competing attitudes and emotions, I want to make the case that they don’t.

I know we all want Valentines’ Day to be warm and fuzzy, while Ash Wednesday seems cold and repentant.  On the surface it looks like you should just pick one. And, ok, I agree that imposed ash on the forehead would be a little distracting while going out to dinner with your loved one.  However, I think the basis of all deep love starts with the humility of Ash Wednesday.

If you have ever worked through a very tough time with your spouse, family member, or friend, my guess is that on the other side you were closer than  before.  No one likes to tackle difficult things in a relationship; often we do our best to avoid them.  But, until you address the issues, there may always be distance in a certain area. The landmine topics that you strive to avoid can actually ‘feed’ mistrust, and mistrust perpetuates distance. Avoidance or a closed heart should not be present in a love relationship.

In our love relationship with God, there’s an even more beautiful dynamic, because His unconditional love is always near. We are the ones who are to come and surrender. 

Historically, Ash Wednesday and Lent have been a day and a season, respectively, of repentance and preparation of one’s heart for the joy of Easter and Christ’s resurrection.  It’s a time of fasting, prayer, and self-reflection. But what is the goal of these spiritual practices?

Too often, I think we approach this season with an attitude of self deprivation or sacrifice, that either makes us feel more distant from God, or give us the false idea that we should get something from Him in return for our good devotion.  Neither are a good place to be. Instead, we should approach this season of reflection with a heart of gratitude for who He is and all He has made available to us. When we come to Ash Wednesday with a posture of gratitude, we can experience the freedom of laying ourselves before Him, so His loving hands can continue to mold and shape us more into his likeness. We expose our heart and shortcomings to Him, knowing His love and forgiveness has closed any gap. It’s a practice that helps us over and over again to fall more deeply in love with the good God that first loved us. 

As a young man, I was an ambitious pastor and I often did long periods of fasting, sometimes during Lent. In retrospect, I’m not sure my motives were very good. Often, I wanted something from God. I wanted my ministry to grow, or I needed more spiritual fruit in the church, etc. Fasting was a means to an end, instead of simply being before Him with a contrite heart to know him better.

Throughout Scripture, ashes represent repentance. Sackcloth, ashes, and fasting are a way to demonstrate grieving, mourning, and repentance that is not reserved only for this season. Rather, this season is a reminder that the closeness of our relationship with God calls for ongoing ‘check-up’. It’s a gift to have a time in the Church calendar for these checkups to happen collectively.  Ashes specifically are a reminder that we are human and fallible.  When the imposition of ashes occurs on the forehead the priest sometimes says, “From ash you have come, and from ashes you shall return”, a very humbling reminder of who is God and who is not.

But if we stop here, we miss the point. The point of repentance isn’t “gloom, despair, and agony on me” (yes, that was a Hee Haw reference to those over 50). The point of repentance isn’t to have better standing with God so we can get something from Him. We, who know Christ, should be looking at joy on the other side of the cross.  That’s what Christ himself did.

Hebrews 12:2 says, Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  That joy was you and me.  It is an incredible thought that Christ was thinking about His love for us when he went to the cross.

Ash Wednesday is indeed somber, but it’s not self-defacing.  It should not be a downer, but a time of realizing the full scope of his love and forgiveness for us.  If there is something in your life you have been holding back from Him because of embarrassment or shame, take that to him during the 40-day season of Lent starting with Ash Wednesday, next week.  Sit down with Him each day and reflect in His overwhelming love for you.  Let Him speak to you about those areas that seem unredeemable.  In reality, they have already been forgiven and redeemed! He took the shame so we wouldn’t have to. We need to learn to walk in that forgiveness and redemption!

This is where Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday may overlap.  In our earthly relationships we ask for forgiveness, then commit to turning away from whatever caused pain. This leads to bridging emotional and physical distances between couples, friends, and family.  I’ve never seen a Valentines Day card that starts with “Please forgive me. I’m sorry.”, but perhaps there should be a few.

So next Wednesday don’t feel like you have to chose Valentines Day or Ash Wednesday.  Instead, embrace the forgiveness that leads to deep love relationships with both God and neighbor.

Blessings and Peace,

Rev. Todd and Dr. Christiane