You’ve been seeing them in the stores for weeks, those pink, heart-shaped boxes. We know without even stopping to look at the labels that they’re full of chocolates. Stores stock up on them in January as part of their strategy to boost their mid-winter numbers. As the first post-Christmas consumer holiday, Valentine’s Day has become big business with not only chocolates but a host of other products presented as potential signs of your love and affection for that certain someone.
This might lead one to the jaded perspective that there’s almost nothing that cannot be sold, but I find the Valentines market to be a sign of human hopefulness. We desire to give and receive love. The heart-shaped boxes might be shallow representations of that deeper human need, but the need remains. As Paul declares to the Church at Corinth, love never ends.
This year, there’s a happy collision on the calendar with the coincidence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time of repentance – a spiritual spring cleaning – in preparation for the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent is 40 days long1, a period of time that connects our Lenten observance with the accounts of Noah and the great flood, The People of Israel in the wilderness and Jesus in the desert – all stories of journey, introspection and rescue. Some people do without favorite pleasures during the days of Lent – typically some food or drink – using the money that they save by doing so and giving it to a charitable cause. Lent is also observed as a time of preparation and instruction for those seeking to be baptized in the Christian faith.
The tradition that gives Ash Wednesday its name involves the burning of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday procession and making the resulting ash into a paste with olive oil. This paste is used to draw a cross on the forehead of individuals as the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are spoken to the person receiving the sign of the cross. This sign is both a sign of our mortality in the substance used to make the mark and rescue in the shape of the mark made. The cross is a reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus, the sacrifice of his own life which led to death’s undoing in his resurrection. The sign is one of death and life at the same time. It is a sign of God’s love for you.
Christians have been using the mark of the cross for centuries as a way of signifying their identity with the death of resurrection of Jesus. We mark the newly baptized with the sign of the cross, we trace the shape of the cross in acts of blessing others, individuals cross themselves to remember their own identity as among the baptized. Early Christian writers interpreted the arms of the cross, extending in four directions, to be symbolic of the breadth, length, height and depth of Jesus’ love for us.
The chocolate-filled heart-shaped boxes are everywhere, signs of our affection for the beloved ones in our our lives. To these, I encourage you to consider the ash-borne cross-shaped sign of God’s holy commitment to you. In addition to three worship services on Ash Wednesday, Pastor Char and I will be in several locations on campus, offering ashes for you, even on the go. You can see the full schedule here.
Blessings as you go.
Feb. 14, 2018
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valpo and takes turns writing weekly reflections.
1 The 40 day count doesn’t include the Sundays that occur during the season of Lent because Sundays are always celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus.