Happy Valentine's Day!
It's somewhat ironic that Ash Wednesday happens to fall on February 14th, this year. Few days on the church calendar are less "romantic" in nature than this first day of Lent. Certainly, the sentimentalized love celebrated on Valentine's Day is a mere shadow of the divine love revealed on the cross.
There are, however, some interesting connections. The heart is...well, at the heart of both days.
Remember the valentines you received when you were in grade school? All of those little envelops with your name carefully printed on each one. You opened it, slid the card out, and glanced at the cartoon illustration before quickly flipping it over to see who it was from.
When I was a kid, the verses were funny-old-fashioned, like corny jokes:
It's plain to sea, I've gone overboard for you, valentine!
Of cores you know you're the apple of my eye!
To be frank about it, you're the only one for me, and that's no bologna!
It's easy to picture the accompanying illustrations. Every card featured at least one heart, and probably more. Pink or red, sparkly or dull, pop-up or flat...Valentine's Day has always been all about the heart.
The heart figures prominently on Ash Wednesday as well, though of course in a much more serious way. This first day of Lent is when we begin to search our hearts for sins, weaknesses, moments when we gave in to temptation and acted in accordance with our own desires rather than God's. We ask God's forgiveness for our sins and, ideally, meditate upon those mistakes and how we might avoid them in the future.
We also think about the price Jesus paid in order to lead us down the narrow path, about his own heart, wounded on our account. On Ash Wednesday, we bear an ashen cross upon our foreheads, both as a reminder of our own mortality and as a witness to the frailty of our convictions, our need for the salvation of the cross.
As adults, our valentines are generally less cartoonish and more romantic. But, whether the verse is a simple "I love you" or a rhymed poem, for adults, Valentine's Day is about love.
And, of course, so is Lent.
I wonder if you're like me. I start each Lent fully intending to make it more meaningful than the one before. Maybe I'll give something up. Sugar. Technology. Or something easier, like time. Time to do a study, or to read scripture every day.
Anything I might decide to do requires discipline, a commitment to do it regardless of what each day brings. But my track record doesn't give me any confidence that I have the discipline to make the sacrifice I've chosen. Too often, as the days of Lent count down to Holy Week, I gradually lose the enthusiasm and resolution with which I began. Which means I come to Easter feeling guilty for my failure.
Rather than fully experiencing the joy of the resurrection, I somehow get stuck in the sorrow of Good Friday.
Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, has given me a different way to think about the season. In his devotional, A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent, he suggests that we think more in terms of surrender, rather than sacrifice. He defines surrender as "the laying down of resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the one who is more on my side than I am myself."
He encourages us to focus less on our sacrifice and more on God's love:
Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word "discipline" that so many of us have been trained to invoke at the beginning of Lent. It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt-tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself [emphasis added]. Deliberate efforts to impose discipline on our lives often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom that Jesus attained through surrender to the Spirit...
What a difference one word can make. "Sacrifice" focuses on me, my discipline, my strength. "Surrender" focuses on God's power to work within me. Rather than forcing myself to do whatever spiritual practice I've chosen for Lent, I can simply surrender to God's purpose, and trust in the promise. God's power, not mine. God's control, not mine.
Lent is about surrendering to a love beyond our human understanding, a love that doesn't rely on sentiment. A love that endured the pain of the cross for the promise of the empty tomb.
A love beautifully described in God's valentine to each one of us:
For God so lo V ed the world
That he g A ve
His on L y
Begott E n
T hat whosoever
Believeth in h I m
Should N ot perish
But have E verlasting life.
May God bless your 40 days,
Lou Ann Karabel