I am loved and adored by a remarkable man who delights in me; never tires of my interruptions; gives the best hugs on the planet; and whose eyes light up when he looks at me. Despite all the roadblocks and frustrations of underemployment, we remain, optimists, cheerful, and willing to see the good around us, whatever that may be. When I turned to him and asked him what he would think if I quit my job to work on a book given to me to publish, he never skipped a beat before saying yes. He had faith in me, believed I could do it, and remains as convinced now and as willing to help as he was then when I first talked to him about the project. We are both all in on the love bit. We are best friends, co-conspirators, and hopelessly in love. We don’t need a date on the calendar to remind us to pay attention to each other!
But this particular February 14th is not just Valentine’s Day. It is also Ash Wednesday in the Christian Church. Ash Wednesday is the day that begins the journey of Lent. The closest that many people get to noticing Ash Wednesday is because they like to celebrate Mardi Gras. The words Mardi Gras are just the French for Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, which is the day that church people traditionally ate all of the goodies in the pantry that they were giving up for the season of Lent. All of my young life we had pancake suppers (complete with sausage links dripping in delicious syrup) in the church hall on the day before Ash Wednesday.
But oh my, what a weird combination of days! Valentine’s Day when we celebrate romantic love and try to do things to make it a beautiful day for our sweetheart and Ash Wednesday when we begin the Lenten season. It is on Ash Wednesday that we start the Lenten walk toward that hill called Calvary or Golgotha where Jesus was crucified, just outside the city walls. At an Ash Wednesday worship service, we will receive ashes in the sign of a cross on our forehead and hear the words: You are dust, and to dust, you shall return. There are other words which might be happier to hear. But for a Christian, they are the recognition of truth. One day our earthly lives will end in death.
As believing Christians, we know that neither those words nor that reality, constitute the end of the story, either for us or for those we love. But the journey of Lent offers us another chance to refocus on the one whose coming changed everything for each of us. Even for those who aren’t sure if they believe.
Just lately I seem to be a magnet for conversations about faith. Recently I have been corresponding with an old friend whom I met years ago when he was a student who attended the Lutheran Parish at Penn State where I was serving my seminary internship. Just lately he and I have been discussing world religions and how Christianity fits into that puzzle. I have quite a large number of Jewish friends as well, mostly from my high school years, and frequently I find myself having conversations regarding Christianity with them as well. I welcome such discussions even when I wonder whether I am making any sense to my friends.
Sometimes I wonder whether something I say might flip on a light switch that starts making sense of the things they were thinking. All I can try to do is be faithful and explain, as best I can, why I believe in the Triune God that the Ecumenical Creeds confess. Whether anything comes of what I say may not be mine to know
But I will say this: if I were wondering about the weird thing called Christianity, I might want to attend an Ash Wednesday service and begin the historical walk through Lent to see what it is all about, (even if Ash Wednesday is also on Valentine’s Day). In fact, if I were wondering about God, or the weird thing called Christianity, I just might have the chutzpah to invite my sweetheart to accompany me to an Ash Wednesday service.