Let's be honest, Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day are an unlikely combination. Roses and ashes, chocolate and fasting, prayer and partying don't really go well together. Who wants a candy heart that says "U R Dust" or "Ash 2 Ash?" Where is the romance in going out to a nice dinner with your beloved while staring at an ash cross smeared across their forehead? This coming week, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day will share a date on the calendar. Somehow, we have to figure out what to do with a holiday mashup that doesn't really go together.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our Lent journey. It is a solemn day of prayer and repentance. Some people set it aside as a day of fasting. The assigned scripture text from the Old Testament book of Joel speaks to us, saying, " Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning..." (Joel 2:12). During the service, there is the opportunity for a time of extended confession in which we confess "that we have sinned by our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault." We begin the process of returning to God once again so that we can journey with Jesus along the familiar road to the cross and the grave. The ash crosses traced on our foreheads remind us that we are dust and that if we are to rise like Jesus to eternal life, we must first die with him.
The act of tracing ash crosses on your foreheads is one of the most humbling and holy moments I have all year as your pastor. Looking each one of you in the eye, I tell you in the name of Jesus that you are going to die. Then I trace the cross in ash that was once placed on your forehead with water at your baptism. It is a holy moment.
That ash cross might seem like the most unlikely Valentine, however, it says almost the same thing as the paper Valentines you will receive at other points during the day. The ash cross on your forehead tells you that you are loved by a God who has named and claimed you as a beloved child. It reminds you that God loved you so much, that God didn't send roses, but instead God's own Son to die so that ashes will not be the end of your story.
In a least a few ways, Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day are two separate holidays that kind of say the same thing. You are loved. You are God's beloved. You have been given the greatest gift there could ever be - life everlasting.
I know, coming to church may not be the most romantic way to celebrate Valentine's Day, but I promise it will be the most meaningful!