Written on: February 18, 2018
Christians celebrated the beginning of Lent on Valentine’s Day which corresponded with Ash Wednesday this year, the first time since 1945 that the two celebration days came together. The juxtaposition of hearts and ashes on the 14th of February was challenging at first glance, but both celebrations focus on the heart! Both focus on relationships!
One of the readings for the day from the Hebrew scriptures is from the Book of Joel, who calls us to conversion of heart.
“Turn to God with all your heart, the source of grace and mercy”
is the way that one composer translates Joel’s message, and that’s the Lenten message, the message of the ashes, in a nutshell. In some churches, the priest says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In other services, the priest might say, “Repent and believe the good news of the Gospel.”
No matter what is said, the message of the day is the same.
How fitting — Valentine’s Day is about true love. Those puzzling smudges on the foreheads of so many men, women, and children on Ash Wednesday invite us to reflect on and open ourselves once again to the truest love of all – the love of God.
In my faith tradition – the Catholic Christian tradition, that is – we emphasize three dimensions of Lent, the forty days of preparation for Easter.They are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Although there are some specific norms for fasting, these elements are mostly about a transformation — an invitation to conversion of heart in whatever ways that needs to happen. We reach out for the God of our longing by fasting and prayer, and we remember that God is reaching out for us at the same time. We give “alms,” that is, we share what we have with those who are in need, recognizing that the “more” that we have, through not too much merit of our own, may be related to the “not enough” that they endure. With St. Vincent, we remember,
“It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
The irony of the popularity of ashes on Ash Wednesday is that the scripture passages for the season urge us to do all our prayer and fasting and almsgiving in secret – not to be flaunting our “holiness!” It is certainly intriguing to witness the willingness of people to march about all day with what looks like dirt on our foreheads.
Hopefully, the ashes that remind us we are made of (star)dust are also signs of our willingness to work at imitating Christ’s generous selfless love of the other.
When I was a child, we always gave up something for Lent. I recall that at the beginning of Lent, I gave up soda, and by the time I got to the second week or so, I’d revised my commitment to giving up only cherry soda!
I have a friend whose daughter told her that she was giving up arguing with her sister for Lent – a meaningful gesture, not easy to keep for forty days!
But what we are really invited to give up for Lent is the error we often make in life – imagining ourselves to be the center of the universe, forgetting others, forgetting others’ needs, forgetting God, forgetting even our own mortality.
Ashes on our foreheads are to remind us to remind one another – we are one, we need each other, we “return to God with all our heart” when we forget ourselves long enough to care about justice, kindness, mercy, and compassion; when we stop long enough to be mindful of the truest love of all – God’s love.
Happy Belated Valentine’s Day and Happy Lent!
Sister Eileen White, GNSH, is one of the Interfaith writers featured in the Bucks County Courier Times. We are grateful to the Times for their permission to share her postings with you on our website.
Sister Eileen ministers to women who have been victims of human trafficking in the Philadelphia area. To read more about this ministry, click here.