Happy Valentine’s Day, here’s your ashes. A crazy thing to say, right? Doesn’t seem to fit for most people. I’m sure some of you celebrated Valentine’s Day yesterday, or will celebrate it tomorrow, after all if someone really loves us, they’d understand, right? If you’re only celebrating Valentine’s Day, please don’t tell me, all right?
If we love somebody enough, a parent, a sibling, a friend, someone more than a friend, we want to be our best for them. Boys will do all kinds of things to impress girls whose attention they want, and girls will do stuff in return, but beyond the superficial, love will motivate many of us to make serious commitment to make ourselves better. Having someone love us profoundly can change us, humble us, challenge us. Doesn’t have to be someone who’s alive, it could be someone who loved us completely who’s gone. Doesn’t have to be the love of a partner, it doesn’t even have to be a person: musicians will work long hours to improve their craft for the love of music, athletes will work hard to perfect their game for love of the sport. We’ll change our habits, change our appearance, change our routines, even change our attitudes.
Perhaps the greatest commitment we can make for love is to change ourselves. If we really care enough, we can sit down with ourselves, be honest with ourselves, make some choices that will make us better people for the sake of love received. It can effect everyone we meet, everything we do, everywhere we go. Love can make us better people, if we let it.
God has loved us more than anyone. God brought a people out of slavery and then generations later, brought them back from an exile which seemed impossible. Christ gave himself freely throughout his life, up to giving himself on the cross, and rose again to give us hope. God’s great unconditional love for us is beyond understanding, but we get it everyday without conditions, without restraint. God gives us everyday as a new dawn of hope, no matter how dark the night before has been.
So how can we love this God who loves us so much? Lent can become a game where we try to make ourselves happy in how much we can beat ourselves up: eating fish on Friday, studying more and not goofing off, cutting down our socialization, suspending bad habits, or if we’re really feeling extreme, giving up chocolate. We can try to impress each other by what we’re giving up, and how much it hurts. If we do well enough, we’ll earn our place at Easter Sunday, we’ll have made ourselves clean again. But that’s not how God’s mercy works: we don’t earn it and we can’t earn it. Jesus Christ has given it to us already, and keeps on giving.
We do have a positive way to approach Lent: love. How can we make a return to someone who loves us completely? How can we be honest with ourselves about our failings, our bad habits, our sins? How can we be brave enough to make an outward sign, in solidarity with people around the world, that we together will undertake the work to become better people? It’s not about wearing the same clothes, or buttons, or hats, or a ribbon. It’s about wearing ashes.
I think the reason to wear ashes together is as a sign of love. A sign that says we know God loves us, and that love compels us to do better, to share that love better, to get rid of everything that distracts us from that love God has for us. We don’t have to earn God’s respect, but we can earn our own. Because God loves us, we can do our best in response, to honor that love. Because God loves us, we can let love change us to be better people, more compassionate people, people willing to serve the dear neighbor without distinction. Because God loves us, we don’t have to give up on ourselves and say we’ll never really change, but that love gives us hope we can be better, and in doing so, make the world better.
Happy Valentine’s day. Here’s your ashes. Wear them as a sign that God loves you, that we love God, and together, let’s let that love make us what He wants us to be.