During the month of February, we hear a lot about love, at least from a Hallmark perspective with the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. But in some ways, I find it fitting that during a month in which there is so much emphasis placed on love that we find ourselves in the church with ashes on our foreheads.
On February 14, we will gather as a community in Christ around the Holy Meal of bread and wine and confess our sins, known and unknown. We will receive a visible symbol of our own mortality with the ashen cross, as we hear these ancient words spoken, “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust; and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
Ash Wednesday is intended to be a bold confrontation with death. This to many in our world is a painful dose of reality; for we live in a culture that wishes to ignore death and dress it up, trying to conceal that which cannot be concealed. As Laurence Stookey stated:
“This harsh medicine of reality is intended to set in motion a reconsideration of the meaning of life and death apart from Christ and in Christ. Ashes, the sign of death, are put on the forehead not in some random pattern but in the shape of a cross. This alters the starkness of the message, which this becomes: You will die. You cannot change that. But you can die in Christ, whose death transforms your own demise. Meanwhile, live in Christ and discover Christ’s new life, which conquers death.”
We hear of the proclamation of God’s great love for us in life and in death, a proclamation that transcends any Valentine card, and is a love that is impossible to fully comprehend or describe. The prophet Joel reminds us, “Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).
It is on Ash Wednesday that we not only receive that cross, as a reminder of our own mortality, but that cross is traced over the cross that was placed on our foreheads long ago in our Baptism. In Baptism, we were marked with the sign of the cross and sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit forever, both in life and in death. Every time we gather for a meal at God’s holy table, we receive the reality of God’s great love letter for us, as we are strengthened and nourished. We are reminded as we gather each time at the table that we gather, in the presence of our enemies, assuring us that we can pass through the darkest valley without fear and find our place at the great resurrection feast in the house of the Lord.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a forty-day journey, that we call Lent. Lent begins with a call to fasting and repentance as we begin the journey to the baptismal waters of Easter. The sign of the ashes reminds us of our frailty and mortality. What seems like an ending is really an invitation to make each day a new beginning, in which we are washed in God’s mercy and forgiveness. To me, what love is any better than the love God has for each of us? I think none.
As Rachel Held Evans put it: “It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair. Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain functions of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed.”
I look forward to our journey together from ashen crosses to Easter Alleluias.
May God continue to bless us, so that we may be a blessing to others!
Let us pray.
God of love, as we enter this season of Lent, we know you journey with us. Open our eyes to see your more clearly in our neighbor and inspire us to show your love to all the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The Rev. Kevin L. Strickland, is a 2004 graduate of Newberry College and currently serves as the assistant to the presiding bishop and executive for Worship for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.