The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 6th Chapter
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Happy Ash Valentine’s Wednes- Day? There have been endless jokes in the nerdy clergy circles I run in, about Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day this year. Memes on the internet of little candy hearts that say, “You are Dust!” or “Dust 2 Dust” using the number 2. And then there have been the hyper-serious clergy types that chastise their colleagues who even hint about joking about this in any way! But come on! This is weird! Ignoring it won’t make it any less strange! And really, this is the way life happens most of the time, isn’t it? Life is rarely one thing or another. Life is almost always a mix of things as bizarre as Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday falling on the same day! Life is BOTH pink candy hearts AND ashes… Both “Be my Valentine” AND “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” So what are we going to do with this day that seems, at first glance, like the worst sort of heavenly calendaring blunder? Well, I don't think raising one up and ignoring the other is the way to go. Instead, I think we should try to hold them both together in all their strangeness and see what they have for us when held together.
Both days do have at least one thing in common. They've both become a bit twisted over the years. Ash Wednesday wasn’t originally intended as a day to usher in a season of suffering for suffering’s sake. Suffering just for suffering’s sake is frankly pretty twisted and twisted isn't really God’s style. Lent was really meant as a time to focus... to focus people on their upcoming Baptism or focus on a return to the relationship made in the waters of Baptism. Lent was a time to either give up things or take on things that would help us steer our lives more directly toward, and more deeply into, our relationship with God. So, for us today, if candy and chocolate distract you from moving deeper into your relationship with God, then by all means give them up for Lent! But if it happens to be something like over scheduling your life or a need to be perpetually busy or something else that gets in the way of being still and better knowing God… well then, keep eating the chocolate and give up some of the “crazy” that makes life so frantic and distracted.
That’s really true for Valentine’s Day as well, isn’t it? It’s become this consumer driven, present buying, anxiety ridden day. But really, isn't the point of Valentine’s Day to take time out of all the frantic, over busy, distracting aspects of life and do something that will move you toward and more deeply into the relationship you have with your significant other? So, if candy and flowers and dinner do that… if those things grow your relationship deeper, then by all means do them! But if what would really grow that relationship deeper is a walk together in a place with absolutely the WORST possible cell service… then maybe THAT’s the thing to do instead.
It turns out the point of Lent and the point of Valentine’s Day aren’t as different as we first might have thought. Ash Wednesday, in the best understanding, is a specific day, set aside to reflect on the ONE who loved us into being... into life! It's a day to take a good look at our mortal selves in the mirror and see where we might have become distracted from the ONE who loved us into life… see where we’ve fallen short in our relationships with God and one another and make a commitment to do something intentional that will both sweep out the distractions and at the same time broaden and deepen that relationship. Valentine’s Day too, at it’s best, is a day set aside to sweep away the distractions of the world. Reflect on the gift of the relationships we have in our lives and commit ourselves once again to sweeping aside distractions and focusing again on broadening and deepening our relationships with those we love.
The REAL goal of both of these days is to give us time to pause in our hectic lives, reorient ourselves back to an orientation around love, and change our focus from ourselves and our wants, back toward God and the others in our lives. Do your current Lenten plans help you do that? If they do, that’s great! But if they don’t, then there’s still time to change plans and do something different. What REALLY gets in the way of loving God and loving your neighbor? What REALLY needs to be set aside so that you can focus? Like I said, there’s still time to change your plans.
May both your Lenten plans and your Valentine’s Day plans move you closer to the One and the ones you love. May you honestly confront the things that distract you and courageously sweep them aside. May you move closer and more deeply into your relationships with God and with the people in your life, so that you may more deeply experience the abundant, meaning-filled life God created you to live. Amen.