Matters of the Heart

ASH WEDNESDAY, February 14th, 2018
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6

I awoke one morning on February 14 from a dream. In the dream Jim was going to give me a pearl necklace for Valentine Day. I told Jim about the dream and asked, “What do you think this means?”  Jim replied, “You will know tonight.” Then he left the house. That night he gave me a small package. With great anticipation I unwrapped it, to find a book … entitled … The Meaning of Dreams. *

Roses are red, ashes are grey.
I’m giving up chocolate.
It’s better that way. *

Yes, Lent begins this year on Valentine Day. What a wonderfully absurd combination, don’t you think? We launch a season of renunciation and prayer on a day which celebrates passion, romantic love and sensual pleasure. Ironic, cause for ridicule and laughter? As in, look at those silly Christians – ashes instead of chocolate (or pearl necklaces!)!

Maybe, and maybe not … Is there really a collision of opposites on this day? What in fact is renunciation and losing ourselves about if not … love? What is self-denial, sacrifice and death really about if not … love? Not the fuzzy type of romantic love but the harsh, stubborn, persistent love that life presses from us in daily trials and challenges?

Love in action is a harsh and fearful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take too long and doesn’t hurt too much.

But love in action, sacrificial love … is indeed a different ball game. Every time I gave birth to one of our children, I was overwhelmed with love, even the romantic type of being a mom. And that’s good, that’s important. But after the first five minutes of fuzzy lovin’ feelings, it became clear that loving children pushes us into sacrificial loving. My own needs – for sleep, for leisure time, for reading, for thinking – were shoved to the sidelines while the new little one made demands 24/7. Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, we often love our kids more than we love ourselves in ways we did not know possible.

Likewise, the first romantic feelings with our spouse are fundamental to sealing our relationship. However, when life rocks our romantic boat, a deeper loving is pressed from our marital commitment, a loving that requires sacrifice and self-denial, a loving that demands more than a pearl necklace or chocolates on Valentine Day.

All forms of love—friendship, romance, humanitarianism, the love that binds spouses, parents and children—have the capacity to draw us out of ourselves. True love frees us from the tight orbit of self-centredness. True love in its deepest sense grows our hearts ever larger, as a place where there is no longer me and you, and us and them, but only we.

But … such love is neither easy nor painless. Jesus did not lay down his life because suffering is a good thing, or because death and self-destruction are ends in themselves. No, he suffered these as consequences of his life of radical love, a love that baffles, threatens, and offends. The death of Jesus was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of an entire life of making room, welcoming the stranger, crossing boundaries, extending compassion and solidarity, and loving wholeheartedly, foolishly, dangerously.

We here in Saskatchewan, in Canada, have just been offered another painful opportunity to love in a sacrificial, Jesus-like manner, to reach beyond our own self-interest and gain to go beyond our own preconceived notions of those different from us. Regardless of our reaction to last week’s verdict in the murder trial of Colten Boushie, both the Stanley and the Boushie families deserve our compassion, our understanding and our love.

The racial divide in our province (in our country) has once again opened its gaping wound, a wound that still oozes the pain and injustice of colonization. And if we object by saying, “I didn’t do it, it doesn’t affect me,” we are fooling ourselves. There is such a thing as communal, collective behaviour. We who are baptized members of the church, of all people, should know this well and live this reality without hesitation. In the church we call this the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. Back in the Holy Land, from which I just returned, this notion of communal memory is very alive across past-present-future in ways that we in our individualistic society have largely lost. It is urgent that we recover this communal living and acting for the sake of the future of our children’s children in this beautiful land, Turtle Island. Above all, loving as one Body which includes all nations, all peoples, and all hurting sisters and brothers, is the fullest way to give glory to our God.

Heed the words of the prophet Isaiah today. He cautions us not to serve our own interests this Lenten season:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high!
… Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Jesus calls us into the wilderness of Lent with him, the wilderness of our own imperfect humanity, the wilderness of racial tensions,the wilderness of alienation and betrayal that can damage even our most intimate relationships. Jesus calls us into places where we would rather not go. Love can hurt – often. A lot even. There are few things as risky as walking into new relational spaces of encounter and compassion. Loving comes with risks and at great cost, sometimes even opening ourselves up to misunderstanding or rejection or loss.

This kind of vulnerability can scare us to the core. But following Jesus leaves us little choice because deep down sacrificial love is the most real thing there is. It is love that transforms, heals, cleanses, restores, renews, reconciles, forgives, and binds together. Love gives meaning to that which otherwise seems meaningless. Love drags us beyond our little egos and narrow visions into becoming better versions of ourselves.

So maybe … maybe it’s not so strange and absurd that Lent begins on Valentine Day. In fact, it’s a refreshing reminder that the core of these forty days is not a gloomy spirit mired in rigid self-denial as an end in itself. But rather, the self-examination and sacrifice of the season is to be motivated by love, the divine love that drove Jesus’ entire life and mission; the universal Love of God that forms the rich soil from which our particular love sprouts and grows. Only God’s love has the capacity to transform our shriveled and hurting hearts, our broken and crying hearts, and gently bring healing and reconciliation and justice.

So here we are, setting off on this forty day journey through the wilderness of our lives. We set off individually, communally, and as a nation. We mark the start of this journey with the sign of ashes. But, maybe a really good box of chocolates is not out of place. Given the challenges of loving well, I have a hunch that we’re going to need the consolation and strength that can come from enjoying chocolate.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
AMEN

*  With special thanks to Saint Valentine’s Day by Gerry Turcotte, page 178, Living with Christ February 2018 (Novalis), and Laura Alary’s blog Chocolate and Ashes.

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