My friends, our Ash Wednesday observances and the feast of St. Valentine do not appear to go hand in hand. In fact, in many ways they seem to be exact opposites—evoking a varied array of emotions within us as we consider the implications of each day. And yet (through coincidence or perhaps God’s own divine humor) today the two collide. Today Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day vie for our attention.
Today, Ash Wednesday, we are marking the commencement of our Lenten disciplines—prayer, fasting and almsgiving; marking a time of serious self-reflection and introspection; marking a time of preparation for that slow and painstaking journey to the cross at the end of this forty day pilgrimage. And today, on St. Valentine’s Day, we celebrate that holiday most closely associated with love. In our twenty-first century American culture, it is a day scattered with heart shaped candies, chubby cherubs, handmade or hallmark cards, bouquets of red roses, and romantic candlelit dinners. Today the liturgical calendar presents us with a strange juxtaposition. On February 14th in the year of our Lord 2018, Lent and love meet. And the more I ponder this seeming paradox (of two such drastically different days), the more I am convinced that Lent and love are actually a perfect pair. They are a match made in heaven. They are soul mates, so to speak.
For Ash Wednesday in so many ways, really is the celebration of love. It is a recognition that as God’s creation, we came from Divine Love and one day we shall return to that same Divine Love. It is a recognition that our God is a God who, “is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Ps 103:8). It is a recognition that God freely offers us the greatest gift of all—better than a dozen red roses, or a box of Belgian chocolates, or a the most sentimental hallmark card ever created. God offers us the greatest gift of all: the gift of grace. And the definition of grace—this theological concept that is so central to the Christian tradition—is actually really, really simple. Grace is just God’s love freely given. God’s love freely given. God’s love with no strings attached; no if, ands, or buts; no restrictions. Grace is God’s love unmerited, unearned, undeserved. Grace is God’s love freely given.
So no matter what you have done or left undone—no matter your sins, or grievances, or shortcomings that weigh heavy on your soul—, please know: God loves you. Pure and simple. And God wants you to know that today as much as any other day. God loves you—no reservations, no restrictions, no exceptions. Today, Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, God offers you the greatest gift: the gift of all-encompassing, all-consuming, all-powerful love. Take it, hold it, and know that you can never ever lose this kind of love.