I am fairly sure that the co-incidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day this year has escaped no one. On the one hand…chocolate, diamonds, romance. On the other hand…dust, ashes, repentance. This stark clash is a reminder that the church’s agenda is not always the world’s agenda, and vice versa. In this case, the commercial Valentine’s Day promotes a kind of materialism, while Ash Wednesday directs us into more spiritual pursuits, into Lent.
And it’s not that Christians eschew chocolate, diamonds and romance. We are not gloomy pessimists who scoff at joy, who reject love. But Ash Wednesday is a sober time, a time when we acknowledge our mortality, when we look into the deeper meanings of life and death and even love. In Lent we practice letting go. We used to talk about it as “giving up something for Lent.” But I think letting go is a better way to look at it.
Some people give up something they normally eat or drink (chocolate, wine, desserts). Others give up lattes at Starbucks, and put the money into a hunger bank. Some congregations work together to collect items for the poor. Some hand out empty grocery bags to bring back full; some adopt a school or a shelter or a ministry like Family Promise, ELCA World Hunger, Lutheran Social Services, Campus Ministry. A Lenten emphasis like these is a letting go for the sake of others. It may not be romantic, but it is an act of love.
Letting go has its own value, as well. That challenging verse in “A Mighty Fortress” goes:
Let goods and kindred go. This mortal life also.
The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still.
His Kingdom is forever.
Commercial Valentine’s Day tells us to hold on, to acquire, to measure our worth in terms of how much we get, how much we keep. Ash Wednesday tells us to let go, to focus on the cross, to live for our neighbors and not for ourselves.
When someone came to Jesus with a property dispute (Luke 12), Jesus refused to get involved. He said “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then he told the story of the rich man who wanted to build even bigger warehouses for all his possessions. But God told the man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” Jesus concluded.
Diamonds may represent elegance and romance in our society. But there is another side to them, as well. Our companion synod, the Cape Orange Diocese in South Africa, is headquartered in Kimberly, where an open-pit diamond mine made Cecil Rhodes a wealthy man, but took the lived of thousands of Africans, who were enlisted to work there. To anyone who has seen Butte, the mine has an eerily familiar look. Mining diamonds takes a tremendous toll on the people who do the dangerous and back-breaking work, for minimal compensation.
In the 1940’s, the DeBeers diamond company (owners of the diamond mine in Kimberly) launched the advertising slogan, “A diamond is forever.” The slogan was intended to sell diamonds, and indeed it did. It even became “The advertising slogan of the century,” in 1999.
But here’s the thing—we don’t measure our worth in carats. A diamond may be forever, but you can’t take it with you. And that is the truth, not just a slogan, but a truth for the ages.
We live and we die in Christ’s love. And on Ash Wednesday we especially remember that. And we remember that we were dust, and to dust we will return.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA