Sermon: Ashes and Valentines

A short sermon for yesterday evening’s Circuit Ash Wednesday Service.

Joel 2:12-17

Easter, and therefore Ash Wednesday, is early this year. One of the curious results is that this year Ash Wednesday is followed by Valentine’s Day, which is, as all you romantics know, tomorrow. The two days, of course, are very different, indeed they seem to be polar opposites, as Mary Jane Fox observes in an article:

“Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and reminds us of penance, fasting and almsgiving; Valentine’s Day reminds us of lovers, sweets, flowers and feasting. The Lenten period of 40 days begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday, in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Valentine’s Day is well – one day.”

For those who observe a fast during Lent this is causing a bit of a dilemma. As one person was heard to exclaim: “Great! So we swear off chocolate and then the next day someone gives us a big box of Thornton’s!” And Jessica Miller Kelley reflects:

“…the austerity of Lenten observances, which for many people include abstinence from indulgences like sweets, alcohol, or meat, seems to clash with the way we typically envision celebrating Valentine’s Day, with romantic dinners of rich foods and wine, and heart-shaped gift boxes full of chocolates. What do we do when these observances coincide?”

I guess most of us are not likely to observe a rigorous Lenten fast; it’s not really our Methodist tradition, though if we are likely to give up anything it is likely to be the chocolates. And it may be that you’re not expecting to receive chocolates anyway, so what’s the point?

The point is that when you reflect a bit longer on the significance of these two days, they have a lot more in common than first appears. Because they are both about the human need for love and acceptance.

I learned an interesting fact today. Do you know the top question asked on Google last year? The question was: what is love?

Human beings are searching for love. The problem is that we try to find it in sources that are ultimately unfruitful or unsustainable. This point is argued by Mark Vernon in an article published yesterday on the BBC website entitled: ‘Down with romantic love’. He writes:

“Romantic love is widely celebrated as the pinnacle of love. It is marketed as the peak experience without which you cannot say you have lived. The signs of its allure are everywhere, not just on Valentine’s Day.

Take the cost of the average wedding. It has rocketed in recent years, now easily topping £20,000 in the UK. It is as if couples make a direct link between romantic value and cash value.

Or think of the cinema, where romantic comedies are big box office. If you get the formula right, of lovers finally falling into each others’ arms, you net hundreds of millions of dollars. Or again, there are the dating websites that are recession proof – 60% growth in spending last year, according to reports.

Love is blind, the proverb goes, though it might be more accurate to say we are being blinded by a hyper version of romantic love, and are losing out on life as a result.”

Well, the article continues in a similar vein and then Mark suggests that unhealthy tendency has a religious element. He writes:

“There is a spiritual dimension to this romantic addiction too. The philosopher Simon May has proposed that while many have given up on God in the West, we still long for the unconditional love that God used to offer. But godless, we seek instead unconditional love from our fellow humans. We make them gods, and of course they fail us. And then love turns to hate. It’s a desire that, because of the excess, destroys love.”

Isn’t that interesting? Many people look for love, and try to find it in ways that ultimately disappoint and fail to meet their deepest needs.

And it is precisely then that we need to hear the voice of God, speaking through the prophet Joel:

“Return to me… return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12)

Did you think that hearts were just for Valentine’s day? Well, they are for Ash Wednesday too. Give me your heart says God. Return to God, who is “gracious and compassionate , slow to anger and abounding in love”. Did you think that love was just for Valentine’s Day? It is for Ash Wednesday too.

You see, today you are invited to come forward and have marked in ash upon your brow the ultimate symbol of love. Not a heart, a box of chocolates or even a dozen red roses. But a cross, the sign of God’s love for us. Tomorrow is for the romantics and the love-sick hopefuls… it is today that we discover what true love is – the ‘undeserved, unending and unconditional love of our Saviour, who gave his life for us’. To those many people who are asking ‘what is love?’ we reply in the words of St John:

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

So brothers and sisters, let us come…come return to God… with all our heart… that we may know that we are truly loved.



About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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