From: Jon Yeager
It’s difficult not to laugh at the unique alignment of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Reflecting on this ironic situation, I had a friend humorously ask, “Does this mean we can have the ashes put upon us in the shape of a heart?” All jokes aside, I think this combination of days can actually deepen our understanding of love and togetherness.
We live in a time and age where we are more technologically connected than ever before, while experiencing a deepening disconnect and loneliness. I’m sure we each feel at least a measure of this within our own life. And whatever the measure, it can be devastatingly intensified on days for which this relational connection, which is either lacking altogether or doesn’t measure up to our expectations, is to be celebrated. It can lead us to a process of introspection that sees the many ways we are not being recognized by others, cherished by friends, or romantically loved by another. This process attacks our identity as a human being.
Enter Ash Wednesday. To many, it may be the strangest way to observe Valentine’s Day, but quite possibly it is the most appropriate way for those who know the heartache of loneliness, or are familiar with the deep confusion concerning their present experience of love. Ash Wednesday is a fresh moment of remembrance, or a making present, of our mortality and penitence while fixing our gaze upon our hope. Ash Wednesday calls us to bring our heartaches and confusion, along with every hidden, dark corner of our heart and the brokenness that pervades our world, from our excessive love for created things to the impoverished love of good things. We are made painfully aware that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
However, we must not miss the hope of love and life that marks this day. The ashes are not placed upon our foreheads as is desired by our personal liking, cultural calendar, nor to any other symbol other than the cross. In our mortality, we gaze upon the cross where Jesus is victorious over sin and death through his self-giving and loving obedience. In our brokenness, we fix our sight upon the cross where God’s healing presence meets us and promises to restore us to resurrection life. The physical ashes placed upon our forehead has an aroma of mortality, but the cross placed upon us has the aroma of the abundant life.
As Jesus reminds the Sadducees who question the reality of the resurrection in today’s text of Matthew 22, “you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God,” so we enter into Ash Wednesday to be corrected, confronted by the Word of God, and empowered by his presence. Our intolerable loneliness, unfortunate disconnect with others, and our experience of inauthentic love is met by the self-giving love of Jesus who prayed alone in the dark night of Gethsemane, suffered alone while his disciples fled, and endured the false mockery of his kingship.
We receive these ashes together as one body, and we hope in the resurrection together as one body. We are not alone in our hurt or brokenness, and we are certainty not alone in the power of God to meet us in our present situations, forgive us our sins, and raise us to new life. As our Psalm reading today wonderfully reminds us, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” This is surely a love worth our honest penitence and patience.
I, my wife Brittany, and daughter Ellie live in Arlington. I work for a Christian leadership organization called Christian Union on Harvard’s campus.