hot fudge at the corners of a child’s mouth,
sitting on the front porch;
a smear of cocoa powder
on the brow of the candy-maker;
on a red, heart-shaped box.
They are signs of love –
a child’s love for sugary treats,
the confectioner’s love of his work,
a lover for her beloved.
They are signs of ritual – prompted
by the sound of the ice cream truck and kids running,
or by the alarm clock: time to get up and make more candy,
or by a date on the calendar, appointed for celebrating love.
They are signs of abundance –
the spare time to sit and eat a treat on a warm day,
the generosity of spirit to hand-make sweet confections,
the love expressed in word & deed in honor of St. Valentine.
And, they are also signs of finitude –
candy doesn’t last forever,
some love doesn’t either,
even the hot fudge
will be wiped from the child’s mouth by bedtime.
Just a little smudge of ashes –
mixed with tears and ocean water
as a family stands solemnly;
mingled with water and sweat,
running down a firefighter’s brow;
shaped into the sign of the cross,
pressed on your brow by the imposer’s thumb.
These are signs of finitude –
a life returning to ashes, a being returning to dust,
buildings and belongings reduced to ruble and ash,
Palm Sunday’s fronds put to just one last use.
They are signs of abundance –
scattering the remains of a departed loved one,
having enough belongings that a fire is possible,
faith, however weak or strong, that leads us to this place.
They are signs of ritual –
of honoring life,
of the cycles of grief,
of the liturgical year.
And, they are signs of love –
the love of a family for its departed one,
the love of a firefighter for protecting her community,
the love of God for God’s people,
in times of sweetness and of ashes.
Chocolate and ashes.
Today is a day for both:
Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day.
We celebrate love and romance and the sweetness of life,
even as we remember our mortality and finitude and brokenness;
And God’s abundance and love in each.
At first it seems paradoxical:
celebrating love and abundance
and death and mortality
all on the same day.
There is something odd about it,
(maybe not as comical as Easter on April Fool’s will be,
but comical) and the comedy is in the tension.
When I finished college, someone gave me this journal.
It’s called “Good Days” & if you flip it over, it’s called “Bad Days”
…as if they are two different things.
If I every have a purely good day, or a purely bad day, I’ll write…
But, if we’re honest,
isn't this day, and isn’t this book,
emblematic of every day of our lives?
Doesn’t the book have just as many pages
going this way as this way?
Don’t we “eat chocolate” and “wear ashes” every day,
even sometimes at the same time?
Don’t notes of consolation and desolation
sound together in one chord?
It’s Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day;
How perfect –
because we never just live one of these days at a time.
No one’s life is all chocolate.
Not even that person who you’re sure has it all together.
You know who I mean – you’re thinking of someone.
Sure it looks that way from the outside,
but no one’s life is all chocolate.
And, no one’s life is all ashes.
It can look that way, too –
our own, or someone else’s.
But, entire people, entire lives, countries or continents,
can’t be written off as inferior.
Our lives are a blend of both.
Weeds and the wheat grow together.
Sheep and goats graze together.
Wheat and chaff get harvested together.
We are both; our lives are a blend of each.
The good news is that God has joined us,
in our sweetness and in our bitterness,
in our life and in our death.
God’s love is abundant,
Jesus’ life is laid down and taken up,
and, with it, our lives are taken up, too.
As we enter into these 40 days,
we enter a wilderness,
we undertake a journey,
we embark on a pilgrimage.
It does not lead us to salvation.
It does not lead us to 100% Good Days,
It does not even lead us to God,
as if God were somehow someplace else.
God is already within.
Calling and nudging, feeding and healing.
This Lenten journey is in part a journey within,
to attend to the Spirit of God within us,
but not to stay there –
it’s also a journey beyond ourselves,
to bear witness to God’s grace and justice for all creation.
As we receive ash on our foreheads today,
let us feel the grit and the dust
of our lives and the valley of the shadow of death.
But, let’s also know that we don’t walk through that valley alone;
let’s taste in our mouths the sweetness of another day G has made,
and let us know the presence of God who journeys with us,
dwells with the sheep,
calls us to abundant life.
And, when these 40 days are over,
and we celebrate resurrection
by biting the ears off of a big chocolate bunny,
let’s not forget feeling of ash on our forehead –
ash that we will receive today in the very same spot
where many of us were marked
with oil at our baptisms and
with the words:
“You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and
marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
When you look in the mirror tonight
and wash the ash from your forehead,
you don’t wash off the reminder of the fragility of your life,
the commitment to repentance on our Lenten journey,
or the honest reflection on our brokenness.
But neither do you wash off the cross by which you’ve been sealed:
the cross of Christ’s death and resurrection,
a symbol of God’s grace and abundance,
a reminder of Her abiding presence,
an emblem of His blessing and love.
Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are not incompatible;
in fact, they are kind of essential to each other.
The paradox is beautiful.
The two are one:
The finite and the infinite together.
May that glimpse in the mirror
set you on a path of paradox for this season of Lent:
May you awake to God’s presence within you
even as you rest in it securely around you.
May you share the goodness and justice of God broadly,
even as you receive it as God’s personal gift to you.
May you acknowledge your brokenness,
even as you revel in your belovedness.
May you taste the chocolaty sweetness of your abundant life,
even as you feel the gritty dust of your messy life.
And, may you hear and tell the truth:
the truth about yourself
– blessed and broken,
and the truth about God,
– gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
abounding in love.
Our bodies and lives are broken and fleeting like dust,
but life is abundant and eternal with God.