Today’s post is by Tim Knauff, Jr., Senior Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Valparaiso, Indiana.
By now you’ve probably been asked, half-jokingly, if you will be celebrating Ash Wednesday or Valentine’s Day on the 14th. For me it was my 7th grade Confirmation students who were appalled when I said we would be observing Ash Wednesday. “How can you not preach on love?” they demanded.
When church moments coincide with cultural events (think Superbowl, Mother’s Day) it is an opportunity for reflection on our relationship with contemporary culture. How we think of that relationship matters quite a lot, as H. Richard Niebuhr challenged us almost seventy years ago. Is our mission to be ecclesial blessors of society, faithful resistors, transformative agents, a cloistered remnant, along for the ride? Do “secular” events belong in our worship space – to blend, to bend, to bless, to transform, to mock, to ignore?
In the case of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, the differences might seem stark. Candy hearts and pink cards seem a far cry from smudged ashes and the discipline of repentance. Our first instinct might be to keep them separate, to not even acknowledge Valentine’s Day. Or, maybe our first instinct would go the other way, to let Valentine’s Day hijack our observation with a pink bulletin cover and smudging a heart instead of a cross. Are there ways they can inform, interweave, transform, and teach? Or is to ignore or capitulate the only options?
I don’t think my Confirmation student’s argument, that love equals love and “how can you not preach on love?” is a sufficient connection. Perhaps we might explore the ways Ash Wednesday fulfills Valentine’s Day by teaching us how to love. There’s no question that “love” is a compelling topic: according to a National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics survey, this year Americans expect to spend an average of $143.56 each on Valentine’s Day; total spending is expected to reach $19.6 billion. We as the Church might ask – and help our culture to consider – what it means to “love”?
There are obvious textual connections: “Return to me with all your heart,” the Lord implores in Joel. “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus reminds us. Both texts really answer the question, “How shall we love the Lord with all our hearts?” In Joel it’s through repentance, return, remorse; in Matthew it’s the classic disciplines of almsgiving, fasting, prayer. Joel and the alternate reading in Isaiah remind us none of this is to manipulate God, just as flowers etc. aren’t (shouldn’t be?) meant to manipulate a beloved. Rather, the discipline itself changes and forms us.
Perhaps we might focus on that closing verse of Matthew: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In the context of Valentine’s Day, that could help us consider how to keep and create healthy relationships. As Luther reminded us, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” (“The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord, ed. Kolb & Wengert 2000, p. 386). Even a good thing, like being in love, carries peril.
Or perhaps we might use those texts to remind ourselves that in order to love, it is necessary to know who we are; Joel and Isaiah call us to the hard work of knowing who we are not, that important step towards knowing who we are. As we consider healthy Christian community, we can follow Bonhoeffer and remember that we belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ (Life Together).
There are probably as many ways to explore this interesting intersection as there are worshipping communities. Thinking together about that intersection – how do we relate to our surrounding culture? – matters, because it is a chance to reflect on Jesus’ mission entrusted to us. As we follow him who loved the world so much – how shall we love it too? It seems to me a chocolate heart just isn’t quite enough.