Ashes and Chocolate
By Bonnie O’Neil
Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day period called Lent that ends on Easter Sunday, marks the beginning of our journey of reflection to the cross. On this day, pilgrims take their first steps on the Via Dolorosa, as we accompany Christ on his way to Calvary. How terribly inconvenient then, that Ash Wednesday, a day noted for solemnity and penitence, should fall this year on Valentine’s Day, the day most noted for sweet indulgence. One less turning of the earth and the chocolate lover’s feast day would have fallen on the mother-lode of all feast days, Mardi Gras.
But that is not what the calendar gives us this year. This year, we are given the sweet feasting of Valentine’s Day alongside the solemn season of penitence and fasting that Ash Wednesday ushers in, and it feels a little, well, awkward. What does the one have to do with the other?
This year, we are given the sweet feasting of Valentine’s Day alongside the solemn season of penitence and fasting that Ash Wednesday ushers in, and it feels a little, well, awkward. What does the one have to do with the other?
If we look more carefully, however, perhaps the pairing of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day isn’t so awkward after all. Perhaps it’s actually quite fitting that this day, the day when we begin to trace the first steps of our Savior’s journey of love for us, would fall on the day of all days dedicated to love, Valentine’s Day. Rather than seeing this pairing as inconvenient and awkward, I believe it offers us much to learn about the heart of God.
In the church calendar we move directly from the season of Epiphany—when we commemorate the visit of the Magi and the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles—to Lent, without taking a breath. Where Epiphany is nothing less than the celebration of God’s love revealed to us in the life of Jesus, Lent is truly the awakening of God’s love revealed through us in the death of Jesus.
On Ash Wednesday, we enter a season defined by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; all challenging, some downright unpleasant. Where Lent tells us to abstain, Valentine’s Day tells us to indulge. Is it possible to enter into a Lenten practice of both? Of indulging in the radical love of God so that we might be poured out as an offering for others to discover God’s love revealed through us?
I am accustomed to choosing a Lenten practice of abstention, of giving up something that is of particular interest to me. I have also practiced doing more, as in more prayer, more Bible reading, more time for meditation.
And I delude myself that I understand the meaning of sacrifice.
As effective as these practices may be at reminding me of my Savior’s great sacrifice for me, I doubt they really lead me to God’s heart. When we practice abstention, we keep the focus on ourselves—on what we have given up and on our pain in the sacrifice. When we choose a Lenten practice of loving others, we turn our gaze away from ourselves and onto the faces of those for whom Jesus came to die. In loving others, I see the face of Christ as I enter into the heart of God. Perhaps the question I should ask myself on Ash Wednesday is not so much, “What should I give up?” as “Who can I love in your name?”
Perhaps the question I should ask myself on Ash Wednesday is not so much, “What should I give up?” as “Who can I love in your name?”
If I’m honest, I think I’d rather keep the focus on what sweets I’m giving up or what exercise or prayer or scripture reading habit I’m taking on. This type of Lenten practice is so much easier than taking on a practice of loving others as Christ loves them. But when I keep the entire focus of my Lenten practice inward, on me, then I can’t love as God loves. God’s focus is ever outward, because love requires not just a lover but also a beloved.
Jesus said that the greatest love one person can display toward another person is that one would lay down one’s life for another. And isn’t this the very story that begins on Ash Wednesday—love demonstrated by the laying down of one’s entire being for someone else. This is the love story that we are invited into on Ash Wednesday as Jesus challenges us to go and do likewise.
What might it look like to daily pour out the love of God in me to a hurting world in need of God’s holy touch? What would it require of me to see everyone as my neighbor? Who can I love with open arms as God does? How might I respond to God’s unwavering forgiveness of me by in turn forgiving those who offend me?
Will I let God break my heart for the things that break his?
As I move from Epiphany to an Ash Wednesday that sits entwined with Valentine’s Day, my heart is filled with a desire for a new type of Lenten practice that represents an intentional sacrifice of love. Will I accept my own dare to love more fully these 40 days of Lent?
My 40 days of love in action will only be possible if I keep my eyes focused on my Savior and on his immeasurable love for me. And my heart overflows with prayers of thanksgiving and commitment to my Lord.
And so I pray:
God, give me eyes to see the ones you love, whose needs break your heart, remembering that we are all your children.
Open my eyes to see the human needs and suffering all around me, from the widow to the fatherless, the lonely and the brokenhearted. May the vision of my eyes translate into the work of my hands.
Do not let me continue to witness the cruelty and exploitation of women and children around the world and in my community, and stand idly by while whispering, Go in peace; keep warm and be fed.
May I be filled with kindness and acceptance toward those whose opinions and politics differ from mine. May I cease judging and begin building bridges of love and reconciliation.
Fill my heart with compassion for the homeless in my city, and do not let me walk past them without the offering of a smile, a kind word, and food.
Forgive my indifference to the injustice of poverty and teach me to live with less, holding only very loosely to the worldly goods and comforts you have given me. Teach me the joy of giving freely to others, expecting nothing in return.
Awaken me from my indifference toward all those who do not yet know you, and remind me that once I was far off as well. Use me to help others feel your great love for them.
Show me how to love as you love.
A former banker, Bonnie O’Neil spends more time these days with words than with numbers. Her first book is titled My Identity is in Christ, and she writes regularly on her blog This is the Day. Bonnie is an engaging retreat and conference speaker, and she teaches a weekly Bible study at her home church. When not at her desk writing, she can be found raising funds for research to cure type 1 diabetes.