The romance of Ash Wednesday


The romance of Ash Wednesday

Published: 17th February, 2024

Ash Wednesday – 14th February 2024
Joel 2.1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51.1-18
2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10
Matthew 6.1-6

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Well, what a way to spend Valentine’s Day!  But of course today is not St Valentine’s Day at all.  According to the rubrics of the calendar of the Church, Ash Wednesday is a principle holy day and so trumps the feast of St Valentine.  St Valentine is not in the calendar at all this year.  It seems that the sellers of cards and flowers and chocolate boxes didn’t get that memo!  But the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day holds some theological interest.  The bringing together of the Church’s great day of repentance and fasting with the secular world’s celebration of romantic love offers some interesting possibilities for reflection.

Today we say with the Psalmist “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love”.  The Christian concept of repentance is rooted in the love of God.  It is more than a matter of self-examination in an attempt at self-improvement.  It is about turning away from things that are wrong, and turning to God.  It is rooted in the love of God because that turning to God presupposes that God loves us.  We turn to God in the knowledge of that love, trusting that God will not turn away from us.

Those of us with experiences of relationships of romantic love will know the importance of repentance in that context.  Any relationship that lasts over time will bring occasions when one partner in the relationship hurts the other.  Any relationship that lasts over time will need to find a way of navigating the often difficult and complex business of offering and accepting both apology and forgiveness.

This can be a matter of words.  Sometimes admitting fault and saying sorry is enough.

It can also be a matter of action – the traditional bunch of flowers, or perhaps some other act of kindness or generosity, can carry meaning more effectively than words.

And it can also be a matter of self-denial and discipline; saying sorry isn’t enough unless there is a genuine intention to cease the hurtful action that threatens the relationship.  An obvious example would be to end a hurtful affair with a third party.  A less dramatic example might be to resolve to spend less time watching football and more time with one’s beloved.  Few relationships can survive being starved of time and attention.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love”.

There is a long Christian tradition which goes right back to the Bible of thinking about the relationship between a Christian and God, or between the Church and God, using romantic love as an analogy.  And so we can perhaps think of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent as an opportunity to try to get a relationship that is in danger of going awry back on track.  The methods are familiar.

We examine our consciences, we try to see clearly where we have been at fault, and we admit our responsibility for our actions and apologise in our prayers of penitence.

We try to express our contrition through our actions – not the hastily-purchased bunch of flowers from the petrol station, but a genuine endeavour towards charitable giving.

And we will need to make use too of self-discipline and self-denial.  This will include turning away from specific sins which threaten to come between us and God.  But will also include turning away from things which are not in themselves sins, but which can nonetheless become distractions.  Just as a lover might resolve to spend less time watching football in an attempt to be more considerate towards their beloved, so we must examine our lives to see where we are lavishing time and attention that rightly belongs to God.   “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

Ash Wednesday is the perfect day for a preacher to tie themselves up in knots in arguments about the relationship between faith and works.  Some Christians reject the whole idea of Lent as an exercise in trying to earn ourselves a place in God’s affections through good works.  Others succumb to the temptation of seeing the Christian faith as a sort of bargaining exercise with God – if I do x for God, then God will do y for me.  Both paths are clearly wrong.  The Bible is clear that we cannot put God in our debt, that we cannot work our way to salvation.  But the Bible is also equally clear that we are expected to do good.

The analogy of a romantic relationship is also helpful here.  Some of us may have been unfortunate enough to have been in a relationship with someone who purports to love us, but whose actions suggest quite otherwise.  Others may have been in a different kind of unfortunate relationship, with someone whose actions are generous and kind, but who somehow doesn’t appear to have the inner disposition of romantic love, someone who perhaps cannot simply utter the words “I love you”; there is a suspicion that their kindness and generosity come not from love but from duty.  Both relationships are ultimately unsatisfactory.  The inner disposition of faith and the outward manifestation of action must go together, and any attempt to drive a wedge between them should be resisted.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love”.

Repentance in our relationship with God is of course in one way profoundly different to repentance in a romantic human relationship.  There may come a point where the long-suffering beloved becomes tired of the apologies of the cheating or distracted lover.  The petrol-station flowers may be thrown back in their face, the promise of spending less time watching the football may be too little, too late.  The affections of the long-suffering beloved may already have gone elsewhere.  The relationship may be broken beyond repair.  But God’s love is not like our love.  God doesn’t run out of patience, God doesn’t redirect his affections to another, God doesn’t throw our often poor and hasty gestures of love and generosity back in our faces.  God’s love is steadfast.  Navigating the difficult and complex business of offering and accepting both apology and forgiveness is a big feature of our human relationships, but with God we have none of that.   The complexity is on our side only.  When we turn wholeheartedly to God, He will be there.

In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit