A sermon for Ash Wednesday

This doesn’t happen very often, but we have a curious combination of observances on the calendar this year. It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but it’s also Valentine’s Day.

This hasn’t happened since 1945, but we won’t have as long to wait as long for the next time—it’ll happen again in 2024. And when Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day, Easter will be on April Fool’s Day, another strange juxtaposition.

This is a minor dilemma, since Ash Wednesday (along with Good Friday) is one of two days still listed as fast days on the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer. So we celebrate a holiday that’s all about chocolate on the same day we begin a season that sometimes gets reduced to giving up chocolate.

And yet as odd as it might seem to have Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day, it also seems appropriate, because Ash Wednesday and Lent are also all about love.

When we leave here with that dark cross on our foreheads, we could think of it as a Valentine from God, a sign of God’s love.

Lent is when we learn to love again. [1] I saw that in a commentary I read, and I think it’s a great line.

And failing at love—that’s what sin is all about. When we sin, we fail to love God. And Lent is a time to turn that around, a time to admit those failures, and to begin again to be the people we were created to be.

It’s a time to reach out to the God who created us and loves us more than we can possibly imagine, to reach out and ask for God’s healing grace, and open our hearts to receive it.

To love again.

Our whole society has become very good at blame, not so good at confession. We are so good at identifying the sins and failures of others, and so bad at acknowledging our own.

Lent is a time to work on that—and I mean really work on it.

And the Penitential Litany we read as part of our service today is an excellent place to start. It takes us beyond the Ten Commandments, the minimum of faithful observance, and goes more deeply into the territory of failing to love.

I invite you to read it prayerfully here during our service, and to continue to pray with it through the season ahead.

Let’s take a look at it now. It begins on page 267 in the Book of Common Prayer.

It begins with love:

“We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” … And this is often overlooked, but it’s important: “We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.” …

We have failed at love. How can we learn to love again?

Deaf to the call to serve. … Proud and hypocritical. … Self-indulgent. …  Negligent in prayer and worship. …

Every one of these sentences is worth pondering, but I particularly draw your attention to the bottom half of page 268.

“We are blind to human need and suffering, and indifferent to injustice and cruelty.” … That’s a big one. I believe if we took seriously all the need and suffering and injustice that is out there in our world, we could never rest from the work of working to alleviate it. But it’s easier to turn away and think it isn’t our problem.

We have failed at love.

“For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts to our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.” …

It is so easy to judge, especially those who differ from us. It’s so easy to tell ourselves that those who differ from us deserve that judgment. But how would our hearts change if we saw them as the beloved children of God they truly are.

“For our waste and pollution of God’s good creation.” … Yes, that too.

The church calls us to observe a holy Lent, and that doesn’t mean we spend six weeks punishing ourselves. It’s an opportunity for something more than that. It can be a great release to admit how much we need God’s love and grace, and God’s love and grace are always there for us, there for the asking.

What do you need to let go of to make room in your heart for God’s love? What do you need to change? How can bring that love to others?

Let’s use this time as a gift, an invitation to be honest with ourselves about where we stand. Let’s pray for true repentance, turning back to God and learning to love again.

And let’s now turn back to page 264 in the prayerbook and continue that prayer.

[1] “Why Christians shouldn’t separate Ash Wednesday from Valentine’s Day,”

by Christopher Hale, Washington Post Acts of Faith email, Feb. 13, 2018.