This coming week brings us something unusual which has not happened since 1945. Can you guess what it is? It is that this year, both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day share the same day ! This is the first time in 73 years that that has happened.
At first glance, it may seem an odd mix, the combination of a day which begins a period of prayer, fasting and penance with a day dedicated to romance, but when you think about it, there is a very obvious link between the two days – and that is – love!
For Lent is about far more than giving up chocolate or something else that we really like, and therefore spending the next five weeks feeling both a bit miserable and a bit virtuous at the same time. Lent is really all about setting aside time to learn how to love God more, as we give Him more space in our lives.
Lent was first observed by the very Early Church, and has its roots in the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness in prayer and fasting before God. His reactions to the temptations that Satan laid before him all demonstrated his perfect, divine love.
Consider the first one – the temptation to turn stones into bread. In other words – the desire to satisfy immediate physical desires. Later on, Jesus would indeed feed people – thousands of them, with bread when they were hungry, but He went so much further than that – he became the Bread of Life itself for us, providing us with spiritual nourishment forever. His love went beyond satisfying just human stomachs, to satisfying human hearts as well.
Then there was the second temptation, to jump off the top of the temple and trust God to send angels to catch him. Satan was tempting Jesus to act out of pride in who he was, and to use his privileged position to impress others. But of course, to do so would have been to act in arrogance and self-assertion. And so, Jesus chose instead to continue his humble, loving, dependence on his father, which is how we should also walk before God.
The final temptation, when Jesus is offered the kingdoms of the world in return for his worship of the devil, sparked a furious response from Jesus: ‘Away from me, Satan!’ For to put something or someone else before God is to turn your back on God, whose very nature is love. Jesus knew that to worship God lies at the very heart of our participation in the divine love. And when we share in God’s love, we can go on to share in sacrificial service to meet the needs of others, as Jesus did.
And so, during his time in the wilderness, Jesus was living out the love of God in practice, and for us, Lent can become a time to learn from him.
And of course, it all begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Many thousands of churches around the world will mark it with a service that includes ashes being smeared on people’s foreheads. Have you ever wondered where that practice has come from?
The tradition of using ashes goes back far earlier than Jesus in the wilderness. It goes right back to the Old Testament, when the Israelites had sinned, and, then finally come to their senses. When they saw their evil ways as God saw them, they could do nothing but repent in sorrow, and mourn for the damage and evil they had done.
As a visual sign of their change of heart, they humbled themselves before God by covering their heads with ashes. It was an outward sign of their heart-felt repentance and acknowledgement of sin.
Centuries later, when the early Christian church was observing Easter each year, it became the custom for both new believers and older ones to demonstrate their repentance before God by having ashes sprinkled over them at the beginning of Lent.
The Bible certainly has some wonderful verses concerning God’s call to us to come near to him: Here are just a couple from the Old Testament:
‘Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.’ (Joel 2:12-13)
And from Luke: ‘I have not come to call the virtuous but sinners to repentance’ (said Jesus). I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
God loves us, and rejoices over us when we come near to Him.
But – what about Valentine’s day? Where can that fit into all this?
Well, of course, Valentine was a follower of Christ, who spent his life sharing God’s love with others. We know very little about him, except that he was a priest who lived in Rome in the late 3rd century .
It was a time when the Emperor Claudius had decided that soldiers in the Roman Army were distracted from their duty by their wives, and so he attempted to outlaw marriage.
It is believed that Valentine disregarded the emperor’s command, and married many couples in secret. He also helped Christians in Rome during times of persecution there.
Eventually Valentine was caught, arrested, and condemned to death. While he was in prison awaiting execution, Valentine showed love and compassion to everyone around him, including even his jailer. The jailer had a young daughter who was blind, but through Valentine’s prayers for her, she was healed and could see again. Just before his death in Rome on 14th February, he wrote her a farewell message that he signed ‘From your Valentine.’
So the very first Valentine card was not between lovers, but between a priest about to die, and a little girl, who had been healed through his prayers.
Valentine’s life demonstrated the importance of showing God’s love in action.
And so we have it – the very unusual but very fitting combination of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. A day of our coming to God in repentance because of his great love for us, and a day of us celebrating and sharing our love for others because God’s love shines in our lives.