Well, we’ve come to a special day in the life of the church. Not only is it Ash Wednesday; it’s Valentine’s Day. Or VaLENTine’s Day, as one brilliant soul on the internet was kind enough to point out. It doesn’t happen often. The last time the two days overlapped was in 1945 and I think it only happens about three times within a century.
The Roman Catholic Church seems concerned about this overlap, since Ash Wednesday for Catholics is a day that calls for fasting while Valentine’s Day is a day that calls for indulgence, but I can’t think of a more appropriate coincidence, a more appropriate mixing of the sacred and secular.
The other day my four-year-old nephew was addressing his little paper valentines for his preschool friends when he insisted on addressing one of his little dinosaur valentines to Jesus. So there it was–a little piece of paper addressed to Jesus that said, “You’re dinomite!” My sister-in-law wasn’t sure what to do with it and suggested that they take the valentine to church. “But Mommy,” my nephew said, “Jesus died on the cross. We should take it all the way to where Jesus died–on the cross.”
And so we begin our Lenten journey on Valentine’s Day, carrying our valentines–our hearts–to the cross–a journey that will end at the foot of that cross on Good Friday. Actually, we’re probably always on this path toward the cross. It’s just that Lent amplifies it and brings to the surface its joys and challenges.
To take our hearts to Jesus implies showing Jesus our love. Of course, there are lots of ways to do this, our praise and adoration of Jesus being one of them. And, if you grew up with strict religious guidelines, you were maybe taught that fasting and other spiritual disciplines would prove your love for Jesus, hence the tension between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day.
I think this was the case for the people in the prophet Isaiah’s time. Because they were Jewish, and because one of the Jewish commandments was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” they wanted to prove their love for God. One way to do that was by fasting.
But God had news for them. The fasting wasn’t working. They were doing it for their own self-interest, which was causing them to quarrel and fight. There was nothing about it that said, “God, you’re dinomite!” Which is how it is with us sometimes, right? We think we do what we do because we want to love God and prove that love, when really what we need is to know that we are loved.
After all, as we take our valentines, our hearts, to Jesus, what we realize is that they’re heavy, these hearts that we carry. Yes, they’re full of love, but they’re also full of the darker side of love, which we might call “worry.” They’re broken in grief and loneliness. They’re burdened by sin, guilt, and maybe even shame. How can something the size of our fist hold so much? It’s amazing, when you think about it. They are weary and carrying heavy burdens. And so we take our hearts to the cross, not only because we love Jesus, but also because we have grown weary from carrying such heavy burdens and have heard Jesus’ promise to give us rest.
And what better place to find rest than in the shadow of Jesus’ sacred heart, broken open for the world on the cross?
And as we journey toward that heart, we will undoubtedly cry with the psalmist, “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew right spirits within us.” In other words, O God, make this easier. And it is God’s intention to do so.
You see, those Israelites, in Isaiah? Their hearts were heavy as well. They had been living in captivity in Babylon for years and had only recently been allowed to come home to Jerusalem, which was like coming to the heart of God. Their temple was where God resided. And they longed to lay their heavy hearts in that temple. And what God teaches them there is two-fold. First, they can rest their hearts because they don’t need to worry about proving their love for God in order to secure their love from God. Forget the fasting, God says, and you can almost feel the burden lift from their shoulders.
Second, God teaches them how to really love God, which is by loving the people God loves–the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless poor, the naked. And then, God tells them, their light shall break forth like the dawn, and their healing shall spring up quickly. Really handing your heart over to God is the most freeing act one can take.
The journey of carrying our hearts to Jesus is always a process by which we learn that Jesus’ love for us is secure–the cross is a symbol of that. And it’s a journey by which we also learn that we love God by loving one another.
When you came in tonight, you were given a small bag of Lenten-themed conversation hearts. You only got a small taste because ordering custom candy is expensive, but they are to remind you that the process of carrying our hearts to the cross, the heart of God, is a conversation–between God and us–and it sounds a lot like a conversation Jesus had with Peter. “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’” And then a second time, “Tend my sheep.” And a third, “Feed my lambs.” In this give and take, in this conversation with Jesus, you should hear the message of freedom.
In this give and take, you should hear that God eases our heavy hearts, not by requiring us to measure up, but by freeing us for radical service to one another.
In this journey, you should hear that there is life waiting for you.