Here’s a fact which may come in handy for your next trivia night: this year’s mashup of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday will be the third time the start of Lent has been on February 14 since 1945. The other was in the wistful pre-pandemic year of 2018. They will sync up again for the last time in this century in 2029.

I’m glad that there are people paid to figure these things out because balancing sweet indulgence with a day of fasting is not easy. It is hard enough to remember to get the Christmas decorations down before Lent, let alone remember to buy Valentine’s cards. This year worship committees faced the conundrum of deciding between Hershey Kisses and pulverized palm ashes. The demands of the culture are hard to ignore.

According to one survey, about 53 percent of Americans will celebrate Valentine’s Day this year.  Like church attendance, that figure has been declining since the mid-2000s, so perhaps the church has more in common with Valentine’s Day than we thought.

While few would buy candy hearts that say, “Remember you are dust,” it is not hard to see that love is the cord that binds together both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Presbyterians do not have the same sort of sway over our congregations that the bishops of Rome do, so it is pointless to say that fasting must take precedence over bacon-wrapped filets. We could get creative and suggest renaming Ash Wednesday “Dusty Roses,” or “Ashy Valentines.”

Or we could simply recall that Lent is for lovers.

It is a time to pause, reflect, and redirect our spiritual lives. We pay particular attention to the words of God’s love letters to us, praying that our hearts will once again skip a beat at the proclamation of this good news.

We begin these 40 days of reflection not with the sweetness of chocolate, but with the bitter reminder of our mortality. Ashes affixed to our forehead are not signs of how good and obedient we are, like some sort of Christian branding. Instead, they are a true and unmistakable symbol of our finitude. Acknowledging our brokenness, we turn ourselves to following the One who promises life.

Ashes were not standard parts of Presbyterian worship when I entered seminary. It was growing in acceptance, but that also meant we did not get a lot of instructions on the particulars of the ritual. I learned the liturgy as I led it, learning what it means to experience God’s love within the rubrics of congregational worship. That also meant there were lots of mistakes along the way, like the time I thought we might be able to create our own ashes. It’s possible, but not easy.

The result was sort of a chunky, pasty chalk-colored substance. It crumbled down people’s faces, leaving crumbs of mortality on the sanctuary floor. Mixing it with oil helped some, but it was not nearly as smooth as the prepared ashes available for purchase. Thank goodness Catholics are willing to sell to Protestants.

One evening, an older saint of the church made his way to the front of the chancel. Bent by arthritis, his steps were slow but deliberate. As I pushed the crumbly mix onto his forehead, I repeated the words, “Remember you are dust.” He laughed a bit and said, “Oh, Chris, every day. Every day.”

Learning to love in Lent begins with this sacred moment. We are dust, yes, but holy dust, formed in the image of God, and redeemed by grace. Because of this, perhaps our spiritual practices should challenge us to do more than merely give up things we didn’t really need anyway. Our fasting should lead us beyond giving up cursing, driving too fast, eating chocolate, or posting cat videos on Facebook.

This year, our congregation is challenging ourselves to become Lenten lovers. Instead of asking “What are you giving up for Lent?” we are asking “What are you up to this season?”

It’s a suggestion made by Marcia McFee’s Worship Design Studio,  though it is not entirely a new idea. “What are you up to?” is the sort of question that friends ask each other. For us, “getting up to something” is an invitation to discern practices that flow from Jesus’ instructions to take up our crosses.  It is not just getting busy, but rather it is getting centered by paying attention to the ways God’s reconciliation is at work around us.

It is a way of giving ourselves to God and the world in the manner of Jesus.

Imagine how our conversations with others might change. When friends ask us, “What are you up to these days?” we might respond by saying we’re working on gathering spare change to purchase an item from the Presbyterian Giving Catalog. Perhaps they’d like to join you in that effort. Or maybe you’ll take up a creation-care practice for Lent, or commit to learning more about systemic racism.

What are you up to? “I’m giving myself fifteen minutes of quiet mini-retreats every day,” or “I’m praying the Psalms,” or “I’m being more mindful of self-care,” or “I’m praying for our pastor.”

What are you up to? “I’m learning that Lent is for lovers.”

Rev. Dr. Chris Keating
Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian
St. Louis County Police Chaplain

1 Comment

  • Posted February 14, 2024 7:21 am
    Judith Schmelzle

    Again excellent!

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