Ash Wedneday

Roses are red, violets are blue. Lent starts today: no chocolates for you.

That the start of Lent (for almost all of western Christianity), should fall on the day when the secular world has it’s most intentional focus on a specific saint – Valentine – is unusual. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on the 14th February was in 1945. Yet perhaps this combination is serendipitous.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I suspect that the romantically inclined amongst you might have got or get a less than enthusiastic reaction if you were to have given someone a box of ashes, or a cross today instead of flowers of chocolates.

Perhaps that’s because the world, thinks that love can only be quantified commercially. So if you don’t get a card, flowers, chocolates, stuffed toys, surprise trips away, engaged or whatever it might be, then either a) your other half clearly isn’t properly “invested” in you (he or she is a cheap skate) – or b) if no one sends you a valentine card (like me) you’re clearly either on the shelf, unloved, sad, lonely, bitter and twisted, ugly or damned…

And just hold on to that for a moment. Isn’t that ‘valuing’ or ‘devaluing’ of human beings one of, if not the central sins we commit in our lives? That we value – that we judge according to a whole set of shifting and arbitrary criteria – money, power, status, looks…

The truth is all human beings want to be loved. Yet we confuse that with either soppy sentimentality, or other false equivalencies: acceptance, affirmation, assurance? You need to love me how I am – you need to learn what my needs are – you need to give me more… Can you hear it?

At the heart of this solemn liturgy are two things to focus on: the reception of an ash cross and the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These are more than ephemeral symbols or practices of flash high church people. They are imbued with deep significance for us. And they are inseparably linked. They invite us to deeper faith.

The ash cross reminds us of our mortality. We’re all going to die. A cheery thought I know. But one as Christians if we’re to deepen our faith, we really have to get to grips with… For the realisation that we are finite mortal creatures can mean we either wrap ourselves in cotton wool – shrink into an ever safer, invariable pattern of existence, protect ourselves with the mantle of selfishness or we can choose something else, something far more powerful, something far more exciting. We can choose to live.

But the cross reminds us that real living isn’t selfish it’s sacrificial. It is about turning away from sin, so that we might live not for ourselves but for God, for each other and for the world. In becoming those who understand the value of sacrificial living – of literally giving something of ourselves away – we imitate the greatest sacrifice – that of Jesus on the Cross.

For he did not die for his own sake, for glory, power or majesty. He died to set us free to live. He died to set us free from sin. He died that we might not be finite creatures but those to whom is promised eternal life. And that promise is never more clearly made that in the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer when we are conjoined with Christ’s own offering of himself on the cross, and fed with his very self in forms of bread and wine. Daily. Try it this Lent.

For Christ’s oblation of himself once offered which in the mystery of the mass we are privileged to share at each celebration is the supreme gift of love. This is the antithesis of the vanity of our human condition. For isn’t that so often our greatest sin – that we are vain?

We are vain about our appearance in a world which prizes youth and beauty. How much do you spend on pills and potions, on hair and make up on clothes and shoes compared to bringing real beauty in the faces of the hungry when they are fed and the thirsty when they receive clean water?

We are vain about our status, our abilities, our achievements. How much time and effort do we put into maintaining our ‘image’ our ‘brand’ and reinforcing it by spending ever more to keep up with our neighbours compared to what we could achieve in lifting the most vulnerable out of poverty?

We are vain about ourselves in boasting, showing off, courting others. You see it so often in churches: the shiny badge people who love status, the cloth moths who’ll cut you up if you get between them and a bishop, the ones who promise the earth, but never deliver. They’re outstanding at telling everyone else to do that which they’d never dream of doing. They want a church which is the ecclesial butler to their vanity: giving them what they want or they’re off! Where are these vain people when it comes to feeding the homeless, visiting the sick, doing not the “important” jobs, but the lowliest? In Lent, they’ll be found telling anyone who listens that they’ve given up chocolate…to lose a few pounds…

‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanity’ says the old testament preacher in Ecclesiastes. The vain do not search for God because they believe they are more important than God. They insist that all they are and do are trumpeted – they are the hypocrites Jesus condemns in tonight’s gospel.

That Lent falls on Valentine’s day is good, for lent is at the heart of this feast of love. Va-LENT-ine. Write it down when you get home. Take Lent out of Valentine you’re left with vaine (fem sing of ‘vain’ for the lexicographically pedantic).

Lent is the antidote to being vaine. It’s disciplines puncture vanity. Lent is the call to fasting and abstinence, to penitence and repentance, to service and sacrifice. Lent is the call to turn again and discover God our first love. Lent is the time to ask: what have we to give him, what is our response to his love for us? Lent is THE time to journey with Jesus and discover real love.

Roses are red, violets are blue: Stop being vain, live lent, God loves you.


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