Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day
February 14, 2018
Dear Members, Companions, Volunteers, and Friends,
It has not escaped the notice of media or missionary disciples, bishops and purveyors of chocolate candy, pastors, or florists that for the first time since 1945 Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. At the Companions retreat in California recently, five young people from St. Agnes Parish in Los Angeles who are in formation to become Companions suggested we combine the two feasts by tracing a heart in ashes upon our foreheads. Instead of the traditional cross of ashes smudged upon our face, we trace a heart.
It’s not a bad idea because the ultimate purpose of this season Lent is essentially to do what Sister Joan Chittister proposed in one of her books: to “take time each day to fill myself with ideas that in the end lead my heart to the heart of the Divine. Then, someday, somehow, the two hearts will beat as one.”
One of the ways to do this, according to Jesus in today’s Gospel, is to go to our “inner room” and spend time in the solitude with the Beloved. This is the tried and true way for our hearts to beat in rhythm with the Divine. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about this inner room when teaching his disciples about the proper discipline to practice the three spiritual exercises of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day may seem like a contradiction because we associate Ash Wednesday with fasting and Valentine’s Day with feasting on chocolates. But both are feasts of the heart. The heart, they say, is a strong muscle, and yet we know how fragile and prone to bruising and breaking our hearts are. As the poet, Mark Nepo, puts it, “The heart, when broken, always has this choice: to cling to the idea of what broke it; or to long like trampled grass for the heat of the sun.”
The season of Lent affords us the opportunity to examine our heart and come home to the truth that each of us is made in God’s image and likeness and that each of us is God’s beloved. Whatever is keeping us from embracing and living this truth we embrace today in the ashes traced upon our foreheads: the sin that keep us from loving unconditionally; the fear that keeps us from reaching out to others in love; the guilt that crowds out the grace and the shame that stalks our step.
Father Pedro Arrupe famously said that our vocation in life is to “fall in love with God.” Because when we “fall in love” with God and “stay in love” with God, we get a new perspective of who and what is most important in our lives. When we trace these ashes today, may we come home to the truth: I am the beloved of God, claimed by Christ. We cannot come to terms with this truth or come home to this truth without prayer. Prayer helps us deal with our false self—that self that relies on fame or fortune instead of faith to fashion and strengthen one’s identity.
While I’m tempted to trace a “heart of ashes” on foreheads today, there is no greater sign of love than the cross which guides us on this journey of Lent. Jesus expresses the unconditional love of the Beloved for us in his sacrifice on the cross because “there is no greater love than this.” I pray this journey of Lent for all of us will be a time to get our hearts to beat in rhythm once again with the Beloved.
Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S.