What an unusual event this is, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day at the same time. As our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton notes in her reflection on this day in the February edition of Living Lutheran, this is a very odd pairing. Ash Wednesday is a day of solemn repentance and honest admitting of our sinfulness – it is the most solemn day of the church year. Valentine’s Day is known as a lighthearted celebration of love. She offers these questions that arise from the seeming contradiction: “Do we fast and pray and commit to rigorous spiritual disciplines, or do we dive in to chocolate and Champagne? Is it a day of contrition or abandon? Do we abstain or do we indulge?”
Eaton notes that our culture takes different approaches to different kinds of human experience. A premium is put on happiness, self-fulfillment and conflict avoidance. The good life means there are no troubles, no reason to acknowledge pain or wrong. There is endless possibility urged on by positive thinking and affirmation. Life should be perky, upbeat and fun. And we think of personal love in the same way. Given those popular sentiments, it seems as though there is no room for Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the same day.
Our culture seems to cling to a promise of pain-free, investment-free, responsibility-free relationships. They encourage a life without self-examination, where there are no consequences. All of that sounds great, but we know that it cannot hold real meaning. Eaton compares it to the sayings printed on little sugar Valentine hearts. We know those are meant for fun, not real expressions of love.
Eaton insists that for Christians, these two events on the same day are not incompatible, they are inseparable. The story of God acting in human history is an extended love story between God and God’s creation, between God and humankind, between God and God’s people. We were created out of God’s love so that we could love God and one another. It is a real, solid love, one that is also true enough to be honest. God brings us salvation in spite of the fact that God knows we will always have tendencies towards sin and rebellion. After centuries of trying other ways to bring us to God, God chose the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to offer us forgiveness and new life, even in the midst of deep pain.
There is a saying from the movie Love Story – and I am dating myself here- which sounds romantic but is really impossible and dishonest. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In reality, love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry but rather love means being able to say you’re sorry.
Lutherans in particular focus on the unconditional gift of God’s grace. While that is God’s greatest gift to us, sometimes, as Eaton notes, we get a little carried away. God offers forgiveness and new life, but a reconciled life in Christ makes it clear that we cannot bring it about by ourselves, and compels us to repent.
Theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined a phrase that is often misunderstood, “cheap grace.” In his book The Cost of Discipleship he wrote, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Eaton concludes by inviting us to think of this Ash Wednesday as a valentine from God, that invites us to enter more deeply “into the mystery of true love, honest examination of our lives and the possibility of real repentance.” This Ash Wednesday valentine starts us on our Lenten journey to the cross, where we will see the love of God revealed in the cross, and after that, the resurrection. This valentine frees us to see the truth, and the truth will set us free. Amen.