I remember walking down to the cathedral in Kimberley, South Africa for the Ash Wednesday service.
A long line of boys – the juniors in shorts, white shirts and shiny shoes; the seniors in long grey flannels, blazers and striped school ties.
We would sit in our reserved seating in the packed cathedral with our sister school across the aisle. The priest would burn the palm crosses from the previous year’s Good Friday up front in the chancel. (Where did they get those crosses, mine was still marking the place of the last lesson in my school textbook bible?) Then we would all line up and the Bishop would mark our foreheads with the ash.
I distinctly remember thinking that this all seemed a little bit pagan.
I asked Dr Google for some advice. I learnt while there is no Biblical reference to Ash Wednesday, there are several references to using dust and ashes as symbols of repentance and/or mourning. It is a Roman Catholic tradition, but I could not find any source which indicated when or why it was introduced.
Certainly, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which was started by the Roman Catholic Church as an opportunity to remind themselves of the value of repentance as they set aside time to focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Of course, we should be repentant and consecrate ourselves to God every day, but it is good to set aside a particular season for this, especially within the embrace of the Christian Year, as it flows from Advent (the expectation of Christ) to the celebration of Christ the King.
Talking about embraces, we particularly liked our midweek outing from the hostel because we got to meet with our girlfriends from our sister school after the Ash Wednesday service.
And so, Ash Wednesday this year, also falls on Valentine’s Day! That never happened during my school years, but what an interesting contrast of Holy Days.
One a celebration of romantic love, and the other a sombre reflection on our sinfulness. Both are Holy Days though, on Valentine’s Day we focus on more than flowers and chocolates.
We remember that Valentine was put to death on this day, because of his faith in Jesus Christ. It is said that Valentine, who was a priest, defied the order of Emperor Claudius and secretly married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war.
The legend claims that soldiers were sparse at this time so this was a big inconvenience to the emperor. Another legend is that Valentine refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Being imprisoned for this, Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness. On the day of his execution, February 14, he left her a note that was signed, “Your Valentine”. (Wikipedia)
Holy Days indeed!
On my drive to work these days, I am listening to Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I never knew”.
He spoke about how Jesus has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, from the date at the bottom of our computer screens to the romantic love we share on Valentine’s Day.
I was challenged when he said that Jesus had become remote from much of what we do, even in our worship services.
It is so easy to be caught up in the ritual and “doing the stuff” that we forget what it is all about. This Lent, I have decided that I will not give up Jesus, instead, I will celebrate the love which he has for me and for the world.
I will rejoice and be thankful for his grace in my life and in the life of my family. I will look forward to Easter for we are a resurrection people – the people of the empty tomb. (Kennon Callahan).
Rev David de Kock