Something really weird happened today: Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fell on the same date. To be honest with you, I don’t remember this ever occurring at any other time during my pastoral ministry. But I’ve been at this for nearly 30 years, so my memory may be a bit hazy!
What do we do with this conjunction of events? Let’s be honest, Ash Wednesday is a hard sell from the get go. There’s nothing that brightens our day more than being reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return! So I think it’s a safe bet that many people opted for a date night this evening. It’s hard to compete with a nice meal, candles, flowers, and a big box of chocolates! That being said, you are here. You made a different choice tonight. So what do we make of this conjunction of secular and religious holy days?
The first thing that popped into my mind was trying to write a Valentine’s Day card that captured the spirit of this unusual pairing. “Be My Valentine, You Beautiful Pile of Dust” Or, how about, “Remember You are Dust, But You’re Precious Dust to Me.” Somehow, it just doesn’t quite work. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that tonight we have two interpretations of what love means.
The first is Valentine’s Day. It’s romantic and sentimental. It tugs on our heart strings. It requires us to purchase tokens of affection that we give to those we love. And there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think it’s quite healthy. People need to be reminded that they are loved. People need to know they are special and our lives are better because they are in it. Valentine’s Day is the perfect opportunity to convey this message.
However, if we only tell our loved ones once a year that we cherish them, it’s a sad state of affairs! They need to be reminded of this throughout the year if our relationship with them is going to be healthy and vibrant. We cannot sustain any kind of relationship on a yearly box of gourmet chocolates or a piece of jewelry. We know it takes a lot more work than that if our ties that bind us to others are gong to make it over the long haul.
This brings us to the second version of what love means. We find it in the curious symbol we have on our foreheads: Ashes in the shape of a cross. The ashes are more than a simple reminder of our mortality. They have more power than that. The ashes remind us that we are made of stardust. The same cosmic dust that birthed the universe, also gave birth to us.
In God’s hands this seemingly lifeless dust, became planets, stars, and nebulae. It became majestic mountains and deep blue oceans. It became animals and plants, insects and birds. Finally, it became us! God’s beloved. Created in the image of God. Sculpted from stardust. If that doesn’t make us feel loved, I don’t know what will!
God chose (with some help from our parents) to bring us into being; to fill our stardust with the breath of life. Not only that, but through the waters of baptism, God gave us a people to whom we belong. Our dust connects to their dust. We are bonded to each other for eternity as brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, if that doesn’t make us feel loved, I don’t know what will.
This kind of love is stronger than hearts and flowers and a big box of chocolates. This kind of love is deep and profound. It gives us both roots and wings: roots that keep us grounded in a world that rushes by us at a fast and furious pace. Wings that dare us to fly, to dream, to create, just as God created us. So, make no mistake about it, these ashes on our foreheads are mighty powerful stuff. I’d trade them over a box of chocolates any day!
But we’re not finished yet. Those stardust ashes are in the shape of a cross. This is an even more powerful symbol than the ashes themselves. The cross reminds us of the ultimate example of what love means. It is a love that was willing to suffer for us. It is a love that gave until it bled. It is a love that defeated death forever. Jesus’ love for us is a gift we do not deserve and cannot earn. It is a love that is life-giving and life-transforming.
It is also a love that challenges us to become servants of one another. When love is rooted in service rather than hearts and flowers, it has the potential to change the world. It is a love that, in the words of St. Paul, is patient and kind. It’s not envious or boastful or arrogant. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” [1 Cor 13:4-6]
As we begin the season of Lent, this stardust cross is the perfect symbol to remind us of how much we are loved by God, and how profoundly we are called to love each other. So you made a good choice tonight by coming here for worship on Ash Wednesday. As we leave this place, I hope the spirit of Valentine’s Day will remind us to tell others how much we value and cherish them. May the stardust cross on our foreheads remind us how deep that love actually goes. AMEN.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck