February brings both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. There could hardly be two more discordant ideas in our culture. Valentine’s Day is a day of candy hearts and flowers and cards. Beyond the commercialization, it is an opportunity to tell those whom we love how deeply such a thing is true. I have already purchased my Valentine’s Day candy hearts in the tiny boxes. I did so, because there was a national shortage of these last year – – – which was a travesty. It is not that they are necessary in any way, but they have become a tradition in our family and I wanted to send them to my college age daughters as a way of transporting my love to San Francisco and Dubuque, Iowa.
Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is a day of ashes and repentance, a day of confession and introspection. Ashes rarely make it into a Hallmark card. It is a day intentionally stripped of trappings and left empty, for the sake of the heart. But if you are Lutheran, or Catholic or Episcopalian for that matter, you might be able to hold See’s Candy in one hand and ashes in the other. You might be able to live with the complexity of loss and love and recognize that they are, on most days, one in the same thing.
We have Ash Wednesday traditions in my family as well. Ashes are burned from last year’s palms. I do this in the back yard – – very safely I might add. Mixed with oil and readied for the congregation, I have more stories of love on Ash Wednesday, than I do on Valentine’s Day. My grandmother died the day before Ash Wednesday and I burn ashes to honor her and remember the hope and certainty of her faith. I had surgery myself on Ash Wednesday some years ago. I carried ashes to pre-op with me that day. Each year, I have the privilege of placing ashes on your foreheads. I see in your eyes, the stories you bring to the moment. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is so jarringly honest. The most powerful, hopeful moment is when I place ashes on the forehead of someone who knows, just as I do, that they will claim that promise before next year’s Ash Wednesday.
And it is a promise. A promise that God holds every day in his grace. A promise that, though dust we may be, we are beloved of God. Loved so much, that all our dusty moments and all our failings are blown away by his mercy. We are loved so much, that God would hold us even unto eternity.
So maybe, in the end, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are not so discordant. “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Happy Valentine’s Day and Blessed Ash Wednesday,