Texts: Isa 58.1-12; 2 Cor 5.20-6.10; Matt 6.1-6, 16-20
And yet, it’s interesting to observe these two holidays on the same day, because they say something about each other. The tension is always there between love and grief, between indulgence and abstinence, between life and death; we just don’t often have to face it. This year we get to enter into the tension and let these two aspects of our life together converge and see what we can learn about our lives and ourselves.
It is good to celebrate romantic love today, as it can help make life exciting and full; but our expectation of what that love ought to look like is distorted by the lenses through which we view it. Our stories and songs about love talk about its joy and exuberance, or the hole it leaves when it is gone. They teach us to expect unrealistic things from love, and when we don’t get them, they teach us to question whether our love was ever true to begin with. Love means pursuing someone and ending up with them in the end against all odds. Love means braving obstacles and suffering losses for the sake of someone whose affection is worth all that we have lost. Love means candies and cards and gifts. Love means never having to say you are sorry.
But we know from experience that love is so much more than this. Love is so often hard work and disappointment. Love is often painful. Our cultural expectations of romance and affection do little to prepare us for the long, hard journey of actually loving someone, and perhaps do even less to teach us how to be loved. When we actually engage in relationship with another person—whether platonic or romantic—we often find that we need to confess the ways that we have deceived ourselves and others about what love is, and to receive forgiveness. Love, it turns out, does not mean never having to say you are sorry, but rather desiring to say we are sorry.
When we love one another, we make ourselves vulnerable, and we cause one another pain, both intentional and accidental. In a loving relationship, repentance is a necessity. More than that, it is a genuine desire to repair the bonds of love that are strained by our acts of thoughtlessness, jealousy, selfishness, or cruelty. To love another person is to open ourselves up to pain. Because we are mortal creatures, every loving relationship is bound to end in heartbreak and separation, whether by parting ways or death. Greif is the raw, ugly side of love that we don’t very often sing or write movies about.
And yet, in spite of all this, love is still worthwhile. We continue to choose to love one another as friends, as family, as spouses and partners because that love, in spite of all the pain and baggage associated with it, continues to fill a deep need and longing that we have for connection.
That longing is what Ash Wednesday is all about. It is first and foremost about God’s longing to be restored to right relationship with us, and also about our longing to be reconciled to God and one another. Whatever Lenten practices we might observe—prayer, fasting, acts of kindness, reading scripture, or whatever else—are observed in order to strengthen that loving relationship between us and God. And, as Scripture reminds us, we cannot be in a healthy, loving relationship with God without also being in healthy, loving relationship with one another.
We see this as Isaiah preaches about justice and Paul writes about reconciliation. We demonstrate and live into our love for God most fully by loving one another. To love God is to love our neighbors; to repent before God is to be reconciled to one another; and to heal the relationships we have among ourselves is to heal our relationship with God.
Ash Wednesday is both a call to repentance and a reminder of our mortality. It is a day when we acknowledge that we do wrong to one another and to God because we are frail, broken beings; but it is also a day when we acknowledge that because God loves us, we are capable of more. We may be frail and broken, but God is making us whole.
Tonight, as we come forward to receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our repentance and a reminder of our mortality, we receive those ashes out of God’s love. Because God loves us, God grieves with us over our mistakes and failings, and God has promised to give us the strength and endurance to be reconciled to one another. Because God loves us, we are more than the sum of our weaknesses and faults. Stephanie and I will not be drawing hearts on your foreheads tonight, but the mark you receive is a sign of love that is greater and deeper and wider than the tired clichés that we continue to use to talk about love.
Instead of hearts on our foreheads, we will receive the sign of the cross—an instrument of torture, humiliation and death used by powerful people to remind the poor and weak of their place. We are sealed with this sign because our failures and sinfulness and the ways we harm ourselves and one another bear witness to the death we inflicted upon Jesus. As Paul says, we carry in our bodies the death of Christ so that the life of Christ may also be made visible in our bodies. Because God loves us, Jesus endured the humiliation and death of the cross, and by doing so he changed the cross from a sign of oppression and defeat into a sign of God’s victory and life.
The cross is a reminder that God’s love can overcome the sin and death that we carry around, transforming our rejection of God into God’s ultimate victory over our sinfulness. On the cross, Jesus takes all the hatred, the evil, the sin, the death that we can throw at God and one another and redeems it, allowing even death itself to be a source of new life.
This is God’s valentine to us: a reminder that nothing we do or say can ever remove us from the love of God that transcends heaven and earth, life and death to be with us. Jesus has made our greatest shame become the focal point of our salvation. Tonight as we reflect on our failure to live according to God’s will for us and the death that brings, we are reminded that, in Jesus Christ, death has become the gateway to new life. We may be dust, and we will one day be dust again, but we are dust into which God has breathed the breath of life.