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2024-02-14 Ash Wednesday

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!

Tonight we are mixing red hearts and purple paraments. What a wonderful combination! Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday! It’s a liturgical BOGO! 2 commemorations for the low, low price of one. St. Valentine’s Day. It’s a roughly 20 billion dollar holiday in North America. I guess all those chocolates and cards and flowers really add up! But you know, when it comes to St. Valentine, there’s quite a bit of mystery about who he actually was. Perhaps the most popular story is that he was a priest in the Roman Empire way back in the 3rd century. It is said that around that time the Roman Emperor banned Roman soldiers from getting married. He had an affinity for war and combat, fighting on the edges of the Empire. He concluded that the soldiers needed to be focused on military victory and not on romance and other pleasantries that would make his men soft. He wanted fighters not lovers. So it is said that St. Valentine stepped in and helped the soldiers get married in secret! As you can imagine, it was always a risky venture to disobey the Emperor and go behind his back. And sooner than later, Emperor Gothicus found out about Valentine’s side hussle as a Marryin’ Sam. Valentine was arrested immediately and thrown in the slammer. His jailer was a devout Roman pagan and apparently had no love for the Christians at all. He made life pretty rough on poor Valentine. This jailer apparently had a daughter who was blind. The jailer goaded and mocked Valentine to pray to Jesus that his daughter may regain her sight. And Valentine did just that. He prayed and God heard his prayer, restoring the daughter’s sight! The jailer in wide-eyed amazement then freed Valentine and all the other Christians who were in jail too. When Emperor Gothicus got word of this, he ordered that the jailer and Valentine both be killed! Before he was taken to be executed, it is said that Valentine wrote a good bye letter to Julia, the jailer’s daughter. He signed the letter “From your Valentine” on February 14. It became the very first Valentine’s letter in history. And the rest, as they say, is history. Roughly 1800 years later, our world is still sending Valentines.

And it goes without saying that our greatest Valentine is none other than the Good Lord Jesus. He shows us the absolute definition of true love. This is there the red heart of Valentine’s day gets bumped out of the top spot and replaced by the cross. Love that knows no limits. In fact, St. John writes “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (15:13). And this is precisely what our Lord has done for us and for the life of the world. And to this end, the church season of Lent emerged. It’s a road trip. It’s a journey. It’s a trek through the wilderness to the cross where the amazing love of God for poor sinners is eternally on display.

But like any other trip and journey, you need to prepare and get ready. This 40 day season of preparation arose to parallel the 40 days that our Lord spent in the wilderness after His Baptism and also recalls the 40 years that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the promised land. It was also reported that in the early Church Bishop Athanasius asked his congregation to keep a “40 day fast.” Fasting, prayer, repentance, alms giving, these things became prominent themes for Lent as sinful habits hopefully gave way to the practice of spiritual virtues.

And so, we begin our Lenten journey anew tonight for another year. Ash Wednesday opens the door to the Lenten season. The custom of being marked with ashes in the sign of the cross developed in 6th century France. It was an outward visible sign of repentance as well as a reminder of our mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a guarantee for us all. Lent in this regard has a definite “minor key” vibe to it. There is joy with reservation. The Sunday Divine Services nix the ‘Alleluias’ and the super joyful aspects of praise and worship are swapped out for sombre themes of repentance and humility, seeking God’s mercy in the confession of sins.

Lent truly was designed to be a journey to the cross, a time of spiritual discipline. As such the distinct flavours of fasting and prayer are with us, which if embraced, made more money available to give away to the poor. Denial of self begins to rise to the forefront. Even Martin Luther himself said in his catechism that “fasting and bodily preparation are fine outward training.” But within our tradition of Lutheranism, fasting never really took off like it should have. It’s largely foreign to us I would hazard to guess. Instead, what has arisen is a rather “convenient repentance.” It’s the “give something up for Lent” thing. Some people give up coffee, others give up booze or chocolate, or any other cornucopia of yummy delights. The problem though is that many people have “given up Lent” for Lent!

It’s odd but there is something intrinsically spiritual about “eating.” In the very beginning of the Old Testament, man’s original descent into sin and death revolved around eating. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” Genesis 3:6. And also, at the beginning of the New Testament, the same theme returns again. This time though, Jesus fasted (avoided eating) in the desert and overcame the devil’s temptation! Adam’s eating resulted in the expulsion from Paradise. Jesus Christ’s fasting resulted in a victory over death and our return to Paradise! Eating and fasting. They are not merely external things. They are intimately connected to the mystery of life and death, salvation and damnation.

This is reflected in our reading from Joel tonight. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (2:12-13). We see that fasting goes hand in hand with repentance. Going without food or little food forces the body to submit to the spirit. With every pang of hunger, it reminds us that we are in need. It’s a recovering of our true spiritual state - a life in desperate need of communion with God. And we come into His presence in no other way than in humility and repentance. This is how we return to the Lord our God. This is how we journey to the cross.

And as we journey to the cross, we go to see our Saviour. The suffering servant who readily gives His life for us and our salvation. He is the one who breaks our fast and fills us with good things. He is the true bread from Heaven, the Word of God by which we live and truly have abundant life. He is the one who feeds us with His true Body and Blood in, with and under bread and wine. He tells us to fast. He tells us to pray. He tells us to give. This is how we walk to road of repentance. This is how we deny ourselves, pick up our own cross and follow our Messiah. May Jesus, your ultimate Valentine bless your Lenten journey with repentance and peace. Amen!

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