Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Lent really snuck up on us this year, didn’t it? It seems like just yesterday we were taking down Christmas decorations… and frankly my Christmas wreath is still up on my door! Sure, it’s getting browner and browner by the day… but have I had time, mental headspace, or the energy to take it down…? not yet obviously! And now, here we are. It’s Ash Wednesday already, and I don’t think I AM ready for Lent to start!!! Are you?
I feel SLIGHTLY better that Christian mystic Henri Nouwen felt the same way… he wrote, “I am certainly not ready for Lent yet…. I could have used a few more weeks to get ready for this season of repentance, prayer, and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus.” And yet here it is again, like it is every year.
It’s a heavy season, not to be traveled lightly, and I feel like I could have used a few more weeks, too. I’m not ready to go back into the wilderness when so much of my life is spent trying to get out of it. I’m not ready to take a hard look at where I fall short. I’m not ready to wear ashes on my head and to remember that I will die someday and become so much dust. I’m not ready to take a close look at my unclean heart. I’m not ready to let go of the things in my life that I should let die. I’m not ready for this journey, even if it is with Jesus at my side.
But ready or not, Lent happens. Just like life. Ready or not, life happens. Like Lent, life arrives like an unwelcome guest. We go about our days and regular routines and whoa - suddenly our lives have been interrupted our own personal Ash Wednesdays, when we become marked by death, grief, and pain. When we are suddenly not the person we were before, but aren’t yet the person we will become. And this feeling is certainly not fun.
As Lent sneaks up on us, like a thief in the night, the rest of the world has been reminding us CONSTANTLY - the moment that Christmas is over, really - that another holiday is coming… Today the world celebrates a holiday full of red hearts, flowers, and chocolate gifts, romantic love. Today seems to be a strange clash of a “holiday” and a “Holy Day” 2 days that seem to have nothing to do with one another… much like the premise of so many romantic comedies. Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day. What a strange couple. Or maybe… just maybe…. They go together better than we might have originally thought.
Imagine a valentine for such a day - “Valentines are Red, Wednesdays ashes are gray… You can’t spell valentine without LENT on this day.” Or:
“Ashes to Ashes, and dust to dust. Being my valentine is an Ash Wednesday must.” These cards might be pretty hard to find at the Hallmark store. Which is a shame, because maybe the rom-coms are onto something…. Opposites attract in this case because love and death are two sides of the coin we call human experience.
After all, God IS LOVE… right? God created us to love one another. And as Mr. Rogers, Presbyterian Minister and beloved children’s television host, was known to sing on his show – “there are many ways to say ‘I love you’. There are many ways to say ‘I care about you.’” And it’s true.
There are as many ways to show love to one another as there are people on this earth. However, what Mr. Rogers did not sing about, is that too often there just as many ways to HURT one another. And by now, we have had thousands of generations of practice at it, and we have thought of every way under the sun to cause one another pain.
Not even our children are immune from our desires to hurt one another… it’s in our homes, our schools, we cannot seem to get ourselves from death’s grip, as reports came in this afternoon of yet another school shooting in Florida… yet more deaths because we cannot seem to agree as a species to priorities the health and safety of the youngest and most innocent among us over the widespread availability of instruments of death and destruction.
Even this holiday of love is not escapes the shadow of death. The origins of today are lost to the eons, but according to legend, today is the death day of Saint Valentine. He was a rogue priest who supposedly performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, while also ministering to persecuted Christians… but he got caught. The story goes that he wrote a letter before he was executed and signed it “Your Valentine.” This was no cute note saying “be mine” with candy decorated with hearts. This was a heart-wrenching letter written by a man marked for death. And so weirdly, his holiday has become famous for being full of everything “cheesy LOVE” related - shiny, red, cute, and heart shaped.
I’m guessing, if you are human and have lived on this planet for more than a few seconds, your heart is not pristine red, shiny, or intact like the decorations. If you are human, your heart has become a bit smudged and wrinkled from life.
Of course, we all know that love and other feelings don’t originate with the half-pound blood-pumping muscle in our chests. But our hearts CAN so full of love we might burst. Our hearts can ache with compassion and empathy, or with longing or loneliness. Our hearts can sting from being hurt. Our hearts can get bruised. Our hearts can even get broken.
We have a saying that we “put our hearts into” things that we care deeply about. Some of these things seem innocent enough – family, friends, country, living a comfortable life, freedom. But, as Jesus says about treasures being stolen and rotting away… these things we think we should love above all else WILL fail us. Our homes and our cars, our careers, our health, our stuff we buy to fill the empty void we sometimes feel in our hearts…. They will let us down.
We are human. We love what we shouldn’t. We cling to what will consume us. We possess what eventually will possess us. We become lost in a wilderness of our own desires. Like the seductive tunes of the Pied Piper, our hearts lead us down a path that will end in our destruction and death before we know it. We tend not to realize what is happening until we are already well on our way through the wilderness. It sneaks up on us, like Ash Wednesday, the start of our 40 days in the season we call Lent. Perhaps, on a day like today, with the headlines of death we hear all too often, it seems like we are already there, and there can be no hope for us.
One meaning of Lent is “to lengthen,” like the daylight hours in the coming spring, that hopefully will arrive someday soon. We long for right spirits that love what will not leave us dusty or damaged. We long to stop causing and receiving heartbreak. We long to be out of the wilderness and we long for the coming dawn. We long for hearts that are clean so that we can love as God has called us to love. We long to be able to store up treasures not of this world but treasures worthy of heaven, true treasures like love and justice and mercy and forgiveness and kindness and working toward the safety and well being of all people.
Ready or not, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is the time to take stock of our dusty, sore hearts. And we often find what we don’t want to find. We find our sinful and broken human states have left scars on our hearts. We find we are lost in a wilderness we don’t want to be in. We find that, like St. Valentine, we are marked by death.
God uses a mark of death, however, in order to claim us for new life. In a dusty cross smudged across our foreheads, we are marked for love, a beloved treasure that belongs in the heart of God.
We are not left in our dusty, heartsick state. We are not abandoned to the wilderness of our own misguided treasures. Our damaged hearts are not cast aside and thrown away, like unwanted valentines on February 15th. Instead, God renews our hearts, minds, souls, our whole being. The good, the bad, the ugly, the parts that feel unlovable and unworthy. All of it. All of us.
And so, we wear the sign of the cross in ashes on the outside to remind ourselves of the work that God is enacting on the INSIDE Of us. The confessing our sins. The embracing of our brokenness. The naming of our grief and disappointments. Beginning the slow and painful process of the transformation of our dusty and broken hearts into ones that are healthy and whole…. All the better able to love the other dusty and hurting hearts out there in our lives and in the rest of the world. To love one another with our whole hearts… with hearts that are broken AND healed. With our Valentine’s Day selves AND Ash Wednesday selves.
We know that will likely take more than forty days. It will likely take our entire lives. But forty days is a good start.
It helps us to remember that at the end of these long, dark forty days - or however long our particular transformation may take - at the end of this journey there is hope. There is resurrection. There is light. There is love. There is life. And we aren’t doing this alone.
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. God loves you always, and in that you can trust. Amen.