In a beautiful twist of irony, this is the first time since 1945 that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have coincided. It’s such a bad pairing for a hybrid holiday that it makes you wonder if someone screwed up. The ultimate day of fasting – the day we are reminded that we are sinners and that we are going to die – on the same day we give each other cute cards? Cards with sweet puns that say “To My Significant Otter” (with a picture of an otter on it)?
At first glance, love and death seem to mix like oil and water. Strange bedfellows they may seem, the two have been forever intertwined from Adam and Eve, to Romeo and Juliet, to Bonnie and Clyde. To help see their connection more clearly, it helps to acknowledge that our understanding of love is very different from God’s understanding of love. W.H. Auden says, “‘God is love’ we are taught as children to believe. But when we first begin to get some inkling of how He loves us, we are repelled; it seems so cold, indeed, not love at all as we understand the word.” It’s a good point. Today’s Gospel reading goes deeper into that point by reminding us how the reality of death confronts the way we live our lives.
Jesus warns about making piety a big show. He cautions us about being publicly recognized as upright citizens. It is a timely image considering that we are in the middle of award show season. My wife Maddy and I love the Oscars. There is high fashion, pomp and circumstance, long speeches that sound humble but are mostly skilled posturing and, of course, lots of beautiful people patting each other on the back.
And, I’m a fan of the Oscars, but I also like to judge them. To help with this, I look to Jerry Seinfeld. He is my favorite award recipient because he has the gumption to call everybody out on what a bunch of nonsense awards are. A few years ago he accepted an award for an HBO special for which he was the guest of honor. During his acceptance speech he said, “The whole feeling in this room of reverence and honoring is the exact opposite of everything I have wanted my life to be about. People walking around the red carpet in these ridiculous outfits like their senators from Krypton! I don’t want you to think that I’m not honored, but it’s just that awards are stupid.” Another time, when he was given an award for advertising, he held up his award and said, “Tomorrow, I don’t know where this is going to be, it’ll be somewhere. Eventually I’ll be dead, someone will just take it, or sell it or throw it out, that’s fine, I’m happy now! You have made me happy for the last five minutes of my life and it will last until I get to the edge of this stage and it hits me that this was all a bunch of nonsense.”
This is the best acceptance speech that has ever existed. As glad I am that it exists, if I take a look at my own life, it is a punch in the gut. Think about it. If you’ve ever been recognized with an award or a compliment, it makes you feel good. Who doesn’t want to be recognized? We’re all trying so hard! And for what? Whether it’s Most Valuable Employee, Most Informed Person in the Room, Person Who Cares the Most, Most Put Together, Most Down to Earth, we all have a closet full of awards and diplomas that tell us who we are or at least who we want to be.
Jerry Seinfeld sees right through it. So does Jesus. These things are food for moths and rust. Just ask Aviva Slesin. That is someone who you’ve never heard of. She won Best Documentary in 1987. In an interview a couple of years ago, she said, “There was a tremendous boost afterwards in terms of validation; in terms of thinking, ‘For the rest of my life, I’m going to be an Academy Ward winner….. My statue is actually tarnished now from years of cleaning it…so I have a tarnished Oscar. It’s sitting on top of a wooden filing cabinet.” The recognition we seek – from our friends, our coworkers, our spouses – is just as fleeting. It feels good for a moment and then, like the wind, it’s gone. Ash Wednesday is here to remind us that, although we may put on a good show, God is not in the entertainment business. Worse than that, he sees everything behind the curtain of your life. To put it more bleakly, no matter how good a show you put on, death is waiting back stage.
Ash Wednesday is a bonfire of the vanities. It is where everything you have and everything you are – your accomplishments… your charming disposition, your intellect, your connections, your sin, your anxieties, your shame – your very self! – it’s all burned up by the righteousness of God. Hebrews 12 puts it bluntly: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
And I don’t mean that as a threat. The fear of death is real and often unavoidable. Maddy and I just had a baby a couple of months ago and the fear of death has taken on a whole new meaning these days. But, Ash Wednesday is here to remind us that death is real and that it is the only flame hot enough to burn through our futile attempts to justify ourselves.
And yet, when the fire of God’s righteousness has died down, when the flames have subdued, in the soft glow of the embers, one thing remains: God’s promise. It is the only thing that has not turned to ash. It is indestructible. If there’s any doubt in your mind of that, Isaiah 54 explicitly says, “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” God’s promise is stronger than your accomplishments; it is stronger than your sin; it is stronger than you and it is stronger than death. God might not be in the entertainment business, but He is in the business of death and resurrection.
Where can you find it? The answer is everywhere. The Psalmist answers: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” You might find, however, that the times you are able to hear God’s promise – when this message of God’s faithful presence connects with your actual life, is not when you come across to everybody as a good guy. It’s not when you’re center stage, but backstage. More often than nought, you can hear God’s promise most clearly in the dark and lonely corners of your life. When the door is shut. When it is just you and God in secret. That is often where I find Him. And it is the opposite of where I expect to find him. But, love, like death, comes to us at an unexpected hour.
A few years ago, a very accomplished and celebrated neurosurgeon named Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was 36, at the height of his career, he and his wife had just had their first daughter. And, before he died, he wrote a book that documents his decline called When Breath Becomes Air. In the epilogue, his wife Lucy offers a moving depiction of how his illness affected their marriage which was going through some problems – both spouses working around the clock as highly respected and sought after doctors. She writes, ”His cancer diagnosis was like a nutcracker, getting us back into the soft nourishing meat of our marriage. We hung on to each other for his physical survival and our emotional survival, our love stripped bare. We each joked to close friends that the secret to saving a relationship is for one person to become terminally ill. Conversely, we knew that one trick to managing a terminal illness is to be deeply in love – to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful.”
Sin is a kind of terminal illness and yet God loves us accordingly. While we wanted to put on a show for Him, He came to rip down the curtain that we hide behind. For, when Christ died on the cross, the curtain of the Temple, the one that kept God at a distance, was torn in two, from top to bottom. At that moment, God came backstage. He sees you in secret as today’s Gospel reading tells us. Not only that, but He will reward you. Reward you with what? Well, something far better than a pat on the back or a raise or an award. He gives you Himself. He gives you his life. In the ultimate act of love, he gives you his death in your place.
The cross is the very intersection of love and death. It tests the mettle of everything. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise and it couldn’t have been more public. Jesus announced his love for you on top of a hill, center stage, stripped naked; the crowd jeering and booing. It looked like a total catastrophe – and we turn our eyes because it is too much to bear – but that is what love looks like to God. It looks like love gone wrong. But through his resurrection, all was made right. Through his resurrection, we need not fear death. For, in Christ, we have already died and been raised with him.
So, today you can eat your chocolates. You can eat them in peace and gratitude, knowing that God is not watching you perform. He is with you and sees you in secret. He has pledged His love to you. A love that will never go bad. A love that cannot go wrong.