This may sound really odd, but Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day go perfectly together. Because of the quirks of the calendar, Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day will fall on the same day in 2018, 2024, and 2029. This has not happened even once since at least 1992, and won’t happen again after 2029 for a very long time. This represents a unique kind of conflict because Valentine’s Day is often celebrated with decadent consumption dedicated to the pursuit of romantic love, while Ash Wednesday points to austere reflection on the transitory nature of the things of this world. Yet can it be that Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day shed pools of light on one another? Love is painful. Pain is better than numbness. Love is worth the suffering.
All too often life seems like a roller coaster. It can be thrilling, scary, with wild twists and turns, but at the end you are back at the exact same place you started. So here we are, back at that time just before Lent. The year has looped around again and progress may seem illusive. We all seem to carry around inside of ourselves a certain kind of death–destructive habits, impenetrable barriers, debilitating tendencies, or flaws in how we relate to those around us. These things make some relationships seem impossible and get in the way of how we relate to God.
Traditionally the ashes for Ash Wednesday are made by burning the palms from last year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. The leftover palms gradually shrivel and dry over the course of a year, until what was a vibrant symbol of life becomes a dead and hardened image of the way things go in this world. On Palm Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of triumph. Many churches celebrated that triumph by waving palms in a great processional on Palm Sunday last year. We remembered also how Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept for it, because the people had not recognized how God had been among them.
Not only do dried palms make a really good ash when burned, but also the symbolism involved points toward the meaning of Ash Wednesday. All of the effort to make ourselves into virtuous people, waving our palm branches and blending with the crowd of Jesus fans, eventually leads to a shriveled up leaf best used for creating a symbol of death. Lent is an annual spiritual practice of letting our past efforts die in order to take up the new quest constantly offered to us by our ever–creative God.
We begin Lent with a reflection on our own mortality at Ash Wednesday because understanding the limits of our lives can wake us up to the need to jettison things of lesser importance, to stop wallowing in the misery of our shortcomings, or to come to see that the world is bigger than our own private perspectives. That leaves us in a position to clearly see and embrace God’s transforming power.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Some suffering arises out of random acts and uncontrollable misfortune. Some suffering stems from unmitigated evil perpetrated by bad people. Some suffering is the unintended consequence of an otherwise neutral action. And some suffering comes from love. To love someone hurts. Love means exposing yourself to pain.
In spite of the pain of love, the alternative is numbness, which is a kind of death. Those who choose not to experience the pain of love are living to some degree in a denial of God. Even though the pain of love seems like something that will kill us, it is in loving that we find life. To be human is to love. To be human is to lose. Those who do not love may escape the pain of love, but they deny the image of God in themselves and suffer in the shriveled up world of numbness.
Consider where you are as you begin this Lenten journey of launching into God’s plans for your life. What burned out dreams need to die? Where are you trapped in the past? How much do your expect from God? Or are you done with expecting anything from God?