To be honest, when I first heard that Ash Wednesday, 2018, was going to land on Valentine’s Day, it was a little startling. There are, after all, some pretty distinct contrasts:
- Valentine’s Day is associated with the color pink. Ash Wednesday? With the color black.
- Valentine’s Day is associated with receiving the gifts of candy, or red roses. Ash Wednesday with the gift of ashes, rubbed on your forehead in the shape of the cross.
- Valentine’s Day reminds us of romantic love. Ash Wednesday, it reminds us of our own mortality.
Growing up at William Windom Elementary School in south Minneapolis, I remember the Valentine’s Day ritual: we would decorate small paper lunch bags with hearts and doilies,, and then hang them on the sides of our desks with scotch tape. And we’d bring our valentines cards and before school started, we walked around the room, depositing them in the bags of our classmates. I remember that about a week before Valentine’s Day, our teacher, Mrs. Ahrndt, would give us a list of the names of everyone in class, and would tell us “it’s very important that no one is left out. So if you bring valentine’s cards, make sure you bring them for everybody. Or don’t bring them at all.” And so we did.
Back then, I thought it was a hassle. “I have to make a card for this kid? But I don’t even like this kid!” And I hated how long it took to write names on every, single valentine. But now, I realize that Mrs. Ahrndt was using that moment to teach us a lesson. No one is left out. No one is left behind. The list has to be complete.
So maybe…just maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are not so different after all. Maybe…just maybe…the ashes we all wear on our foreheads tonight are a reminder that we all share in something fundamental…our humanity…our mortality…and our utter dependence on God. And maybe…just maybe…we are reminded that there is a list where we belong, and that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is for all on this list.
You may be familiar with the story of Oscar Schindler. He was a German industrialist during World War II. He ran a factory that made ammunition for the German war effort. Because most of the men were off to war, Schindler received permission to use Jewish concentration camp inmates as forced laborers in his factory. These workers, men, women and children, were spared from death in order to go to the factory every day to work making ammunition.
Schindler’s story was made famous in the 1993 movie, Schindler’s List. Something unexpected happened to Oscar Schindler in the factory during the war: he began to get to know his workers. And as he got to know them, as he built relationships, his heart was changed. He began to care about them…he began to feel responsible for them. In an interview after the war, he said: “I knew the people who worked for me… When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.” And so every week, Schindler asked the German concentration camp to send him a larger number of workers. And every week the number of workers that were on his factory floor; the number of people on his list grew. He did this not because he needed the extra laborers but because he was trying to save their lives. In the end, almost 1200 people were saved because of his work. Because they found themselves on Schindler’s list.
Oscar Schindler died in 1974. Before his death, he asked that he be buried in Jerusalem to be near those he now felt were ‘his people.’ After his death, something remarkable happened: The State of Israel declared Oscar Schindler to be “Righteous Among the Nations,” one of only a few non-Jewish people to ever be given that honor. And every year thousands of visitors pay tribute to Schindler by placing small stones on top of his grave, as a sign of the burden he carried on behalf of the Jewish people.
For Jewish people, “Righteousness” is a state or a condition of being in a “right relationship” with God. From the earliest Biblical stories, the Jewish people would strive to become right with God by following all of the Jewish laws to the letter. As a matter of fact, the whole Old Testament is really the story of God’s people trying, and failing, to find their way into this condition of righteousness.
Our Gospel lesson tonight begins with Jesus’ words “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.”
Jesus is not calling into question the importance of being in a right relationship with God. Jesus is saying that when people seek a right relationship, they should do so for the right reasons.
He says that when we give, to give quietly, and with no expectation of public recognition. We do not give to impress others.
He says that when we pray, we pray privately. The point of prayer is to connect and communicate with God. It is not to be seen praying. We do not pray to impress others.
And he says that when we fast, that we should do so privately, so as to not draw attention to our acts. We do not fast to impress others.
Jesus is saying that righteousness is a private thing. Not a public thing. Jesus is criticizing the religious leaders who are characterized as engaging in acts of righteousness but for the wrong motivation — gaining glory from people instead of serving God. This is not righteousness…it is self-righteousness. Jesus calls for a higher righteousness; engaging in these acts in ways that do not draw attention to oneself but draws one closer to God.
And Jesus reminds us that ultimately the acts of prayer, of giving and of fasting, do not make us righteous. Rather, we are made righteous only by His sacrificial love.
So, I have to admit that these crosses that we wear on our foreheads tonight might seem a little contradictory. These are highly public statements of our faith. I remember years ago; my habit was to go to the gym later in the evening. I remember going once after Ash Wednesday services. I couldn’t figure out why people were staring at me, until I went into the locker room after riding the bike for a half hour to realize that I had forgotten about the ashes, and now combined with the sweat, I had a giant black blob covering half my head.
No, the intent of the ash on our foreheads is not to show off what we have done to try and bring us closer to being righteous. The ash on our forehead is a sign of what Jesus has done to make us righteous.
When someone is baptized, after the water is poured over the forehead of the child, the pastor makes the sign of the cross…right here…and says “child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Sealed, marked and claimed by Christ. Every one of us. It is in that moment that we are first made righteous. It is in that moment that the promises of God make us whole.
On Ash Wednesday, we make the mark of the cross in ashes in the exact same spot. It reminds us that while we are made righteous by Jesus in our baptism, that righteousness comes at cost. We continue to sin, and our relationship with God continues to fracture. But Jesus makes us whole…makes us righteous…every single day. It reminds us that our baptism, our death and our resurrection are all bound together in the promises of God.
Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, recently wrote about how Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day land on the same date this year. She wrote: “So, Ash Wednesday is a valentine from God, one that invites us to enter deep into the mystery of true love, the honest examination of our lives and the possibility of real repentance. The Ash Wednesday valentine starts us on the journey to the cross, to the passionate love of God shown in the Passion of Christ. And after the cross, the resurrection.”
We are a people in need of being saved. We are a people who are held captive by sin and cannot free ourselves. But this Ash Wednesday, we receive the gift of new life; the valentine from God. And we remember that it is fully because of God’s grace and love towards us that we find ourselves on Jesus’ list.
Thanks be to God.