Readings: Joel 2.1-2 and 12-17; Matthew 6. 1-6 and 16 – 21 or John 8.1-11

Some days ago I was leaving one of our supermarkets and turned back to look into the shop at the large poster which announced, ‘February 14, Valentine’s Day’, advertising cards, bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolates, bubbly, gifts to give a loved one. Then I heard a voice behind me saying ‘shall we either cross out Valentine’s Day and write Ash Wednesday or just add Ash Wednesday?’ Of course, we were ladies of a certain age, far too well behaved to deface the poster. We didn’t get out a black marker but the thought that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday collide this year, and will only twice again this century, kept going through my mind. What should we do when Feast and Fast collide? Should we cancel one or celebrate both?

Valentine’s Day is a joyful celebration of the person, or persons we love most, a celebration of love given and love received. It’s an occasion for happiness, a day to say, ‘I love you’. A day, perhaps to dare to admit, ‘I am often wrong, I am sorry, I do still love you’. It’s a day of celebrating loving relationships and, for many of us, a day of remembering those we have loved and still love, but see no more.

How can we possibly celebrate this happy Valentine’s day with Ash Wednesday, one of the saddest days of the Church’s year that leads us into the time of Lent? It’s a day when we think of sin and death, the sin that cuts us off from God. It’s a day when we are called to admit our sinfulness, our failures of loving God and our neighbour, of failing the greatest command of all that we should love the Lord our God with all our hearts with all our souls and with all our minds and, closely connected with that, love our neighbour as ourselves. Ash Wednesday is a day to be uncomfortable, ashamed of ourselves, a day to own up to our failures, our self – centredness, a day to re-consider our priorities in life, and admit, ‘I have been wrong, I am sorry, I do love you, I will do better’. And to say this to a God who is always waiting for us with love.

I remember someone saying ,‘ Ash Wednesday is Our Valentine’s Day with God’. It’s a day to remember God’s love and a day to renew our intention to love God and to love our neighbour, our neighbours near and far, to love them as we love ourselves. Ash Wednesday is a day in the light of God’s love to repent of our lack of love, our failures in loving. And, what does repent really mean? It means to turn around, to turn away from sin and turn to God and face up to what God requires of us. It’s a day like the one we heard the prophet Joel describe in our first reading. Through the prophet the Lord said to Israel, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Joel was clear that what Israel would find if only they would turn and repent of their failures, is that God is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed)…’God is already there waiting for Israel in love – just as God is waiting for us with love.

As we kneel at the altar, we shall be marked with the sign of the Cross. What that cross on our foreheads points to is the Cross on which Jesus died. It reminds us of God’s great act of love for us, the death of the Son of God, for our healing and for the forgiveness of our sins. As we kneel at the altar we are marked with the Cross of ashes. At our baptism we were marked with the same Cross with holy oil. The Cross is right at the very heart of our Christian faith. And the words Father Rodney will say to each of us are, ‘Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return, turn away from sin and follow Christ’. The mark on our forehead is the Cross of Jesus, the sign of his love for us, his love for all humankind. It is a challenge to us to repent, to take up our cross and follow Him. With that cross marked on our foreheads we begin forty days of Lent, days to try a bit harder to turn away from sin and selfishness, and to open ourselves to the needs of others, determined to live in the relationship of God’s love.

Ash Wednesday is a day to face up to our failures and ask forgiveness, a day to open ourselves to God’s forgiving love that same gracious love Jesus showed to the woman caught in adultery we heard about in our gospel reading. When all was revealed about her life, Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again.’ Ash Wednesday is a day to pledge ourselves to forty days of living in this pattern of repentance open to the loving presence of a God whose nature is always to love and determined to live a more faithful life. I can think of no better prayer for the next 40 days of Lent than to pray daily the well- known prayer of St Richard of Chichester – ‘ May I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly day by day’.

We needn’t cut Valentines Day out this year, that day of loving relationships, but use the colliding of the Feast and the Fast today, to think of Ash Wednesday this year as ‘Our Valentine’s Day with God’. Our day of remembering God’s love, a day of repenting of our lack of love, our selfishness and open ourselves to God’s love for us, determined to return love with love.

Let’s make the most of the collision this year of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, our Valentine’s Day with God.


Mary Tanner

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