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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day - essay

This is an adaptation of the Sunday message I gave to seniors at their independent living facility. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/2EqpcN6

Today is Valentine’s Day, a day during which lovers give cards, flowers, candy, and other special gifts to each other as a mark of their affection. 

But this year, February 14 also marks another celebration: Ash Wednesday. Today is also the first day of Lent, the period in the Christian calendar during which the faithful ask themselves once again, Who am I? Why am I here? Why did Jesus die for me? How can I grow in my love and devotion to my Savior? 

In churches where Lent is celebrated, congregants receive ashes on their forehead and hear the words: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Do you bristle at that phrase?  It is not unusual for many people to take umbrage at that statement – “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

But the declaration itself – as is the reason behind Ash Wednesday – is purposely designed to upend our pride, to force us to remember the stark reality that each one of us – despite our popularity, our wealth, our titles, our family backgrounds – despite everything we have and hold dear to ourselves – in the end, when we have been laid in the ground, our body will decay to nothing more than dust and ashes and our popularity and titles and so forth will be forgotten within a very, very short time.

Indeed, and this is really important, Ash Wednesday serves to remind us nothing we have accomplished in life will last EXCEPT what we have done for God. Only that, and nothing else, will come with us into eternity.

Nothing else.

You might remember what King Solomon learned about wealth and popularity and titles. Here is how he began his autobiography in Ecclesiastes (Chapter 2)  “I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself;  I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself  . . . . I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines. . . . .  Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity [meaningless] and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun . . . .  

Read the entire book and you will sense the depth of this man’s sorrow, his mournful regret as he looked back over his life filled with ashes. Here is how he concluded his autobiography in chapter 12:

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them” . . . “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!” The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

If we don’t get the point about the absolute futility of bigger-better-more, if we dismiss the idea that only what is done for Christ matters, then the spiritual significance of the convergence this year of Lent and Valentine’s Day will mean very little. 

We looked at Ash Wednesday. Now for Valentine’s Day.

In a depth of love that we can only imagine, God gave to us who are dust and ashes a priceless Gift – the gift of His Son. Even while we rebelliously shook our fist in His face, Jesus went to that cross, so you and I will not be cast from His eternal presence for our rebellions and sins. He gave His Son so that you and I, the laser-like focus of His love, would spend eternity with Him.

But Valentine’s Day is best enjoyed if it is a reciprocal celebration, when lovers give gifts to each other as an expression of their love for each other.

And so, as God gave you and me His love, wrapped in a manger on Christmas morning – and fully unveiled for us on Calvary’s Cross, what gift might we give to God? Many of you are familiar with Isaac Watts’ hymn:

When I survey the wondrous cross 
On which the Prince of glory died, 
My richest gain I count but loss, 
And pour contempt on all my pride. 

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, 
Save in the death of Christ my God! 
All the vain things that charm me most, 
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet, 
Sorrow and love flow mingled down! 
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, 
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine, 
That were a present far too small; 
Love so amazing, so divine, 
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

So, what can be our love-gift to Him? Time, talent, treasure? Those are good places to start. But what about giving to Him also our broken hearts? Our shattered dreams? Our spiritual, emotional, and even the physical wounds we still carry? Can we lay them at His feet, and leave them there?

Oh, what wondrous gifts we give Him when we give Him what hurts us the most. And Oh! How He wants to embrace us and soothe away all that sorrow.

What will you and I give Him today, on this combined celebration of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday? What will we sacrifice to His love? Those are important questions we all can consider – should consider – every day, but perhaps especially on this day, February 14, as Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday kiss each other.

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