This year, Ash Wednesday falls on the Feast of Saint Valentine (otherwise known as Valentine’s Day). Christopher Hale is quoted on Millennial in a post on this very same subject as linking Valentine’s Day with Ash Wednesday as a reminder of the true nature of love. I would like to expand on that sentiment a little here.
Saint Paul provides the most clear understanding of love in his letter to the Corinthians. He explains that love is more than just words, love is an action. Indeed, as Hale points out, Paul goes so far as to say that love spoken without action is as worthless as a “clashing cymbal,” while a love that’s performed in deed “always perseveres.”
Ash Wednesday opens up the season of Lent. For forty days, Christians from all around the entire world will mimic the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert in the lead up to His own Divine Ministry, which was a further mimic of the forty years that the Jewish people– God’s chosen– spent in exile. Ash Wednesday reaches back in time to the very foundations of our faith, when the Jewish faith began to crystalize into something substantive for the world to consume and understand. The forty years of exile for the Jewish people was a time of great strife and unknown but it was also a time when some of the most beautiful and articulate aspects of the faith were explored, written down and shared among the people. It was indeed while in exile that the Jewish people found their true identity and place in the temporal world. The same can be said of Jesus during his days alone in the desert. Christ is tempted by Satan and rejects all of the Evil One’s presentations because He has a Ministry and a purpose, He has a place in this temporal world. He finds that place during his forty days in the desert and that understanding is manifested in his public ministry which follows. Just as Judaism traces its roots to the exile, Christianity can trace its roots to the temptations of Christ is the desert– that period of feeling lost, alone and in exile from the world where we don’t understand how we fit in.
To love is to sacrifice the immediate “now” for the long term “then”. Love that is served up immediately, in some impulsive manner, is not love, it is lust or at best infatuation. Real love demands an outlook toward the future, toward what is next and what is to be. For this reason, Christian weddings are celebrations about the present (two people declaring their love for one another), as it is a celebration about the future (promises of raising Christian children and growing old together). Love and sacrifice are inseparably linked and we can see the impact of a world that values one aspect over the other when we see how many failed marriages and miserable people there are in unhealthy relationships. Sacrifice demands equal respect for the future as well as the present. You cannot justify giving up something today for the betterment of tomorrow, if you have no concept, no idea of what tomorrow is, in fact it would be illogical to give up anything beneficial today if you cannot articulate an understanding of tomorrow.
Ash Wednesday is the first day when we take the time to put ourselves in our own exiles from the world, in our own deserts to be lost, lonely and confused. We do this because we sacrifice ourselves in order to be prepared and be ready for our own ministries to come. We remove ourselves from this world in order that we may more accurately find our own place within it. And we do all of this out of a spirit of love that is propped up by sacrifice and penitential acts.
Today is not about wearing a symbol of our faith proudly on our foreheads (as some secular minded people might have us believe). Today is about reminding ourselves that we are dust– we are from this world and into this world we will die again. We make this first act to remove ourselves from this world because of the immediate contrast to the message that Christ brings us. We are not meant for this world as a final destination, but we are here now and we are part of it now. We must detach ourselves in order to find our place within it– in order to craft our ministry and enter back with the confidence of a saint.
O almighty and eternal God, who hast dominion over both the living and the dead, and hast mercy on all whom Thou foreknowest shall be Thine by faith and good works: we humbly beseech Thee that all for whom we have resolved to make supplication whether the present world still holds them in the flesh or the world to come has already received them out of the body, may, through the intercession of all Thy saints, obtain of Thy goodness and clemency pardon for all their sins. Amen.