Ash Wednesday 2018 ~ From Chocolate to Ashes
Today, St Valentine’s Day, is a feast day of chocolate. And chocolate is very important to a lot of people. How many of us would want to live without it? Chocolate, that wonderful substance, that can be drunk or eaten, without any physically or mentally destructive side-effects, and of which we consume thousands of tons a year. Chocolate is a daily ingredient in the lives of people of all ages, and those who market our major festivals are well aware of it. And it is rather ironic that if St Valentine is the patron saint of chocolate, today, Ash Wednesday is the day we begin Lent, and for many people Lent is about giving up chocolate.
For while chocolate is commonplace, it is also special, and therefore makes special appearances as Christmas decorations and yule logs, as Easter eggs and bunnies, and of course, today, as chocolate hearts with gooey soft centres. Wherever there is a Christian festival, the all pervasive and delicious chocolate appears, and steals the show. Indeed, today, St Valentine’s Day, is not so much a celebration of love, as of chocolate, and St. Valentine’s real place in our post-millennial hagiography, is as the patron saint of chocolate.
But this ‘stealing of the show’ is not a new thing, for it has happened wherever the church and other traditions have competed for influence. It happened eighteen centuries ago, when the original Valentine gave his name to this day.
In the 3rd century, in pre-Christian Rome, the emperor Claudius II had terrible difficulty getting soldiers to go away to fight, because the men did not want to leave their wives and families. So, ever mindful of the root of the problem, Claudius abolished marriage, and prevented anyone from becoming engaged. But marriage, then as now, was held in high esteem in Christian circles, and Valentine, who was a priest in what was then a persecuted church, continued to encourage couples to marry, and married them himself. The Roman authorities were not impressed, of course, and Valentine was beaten to death with clubs, and decapitated. His martyrdom is believed to have been on this day, in the year 270AD. His relics - or his heart at least is said to be in a church in Dublin to this day.
Today - the fourteenth of February - was itself significant, because, ironically for Valentine, it was the eve of a pagan fertility festival called Lupercalia. And Lupercalia at the end of the third century was not dissimilar in form to Valentine’s day in the 21st Century. On the eve of the festival, a grand lottery would take place, with the names of young women being drawn out of a jar by the young men. This Roman equivalent of the ‘blind date’ would lead to a meeting of two young people on the next day, the fifteenth of February, and they would spend time together during the festival, and sometimes the pairing would lead to love and marriage. The early Roman church tried to clean up Lupercalia when in the year 496, Pope Gelesius nominated February 14th as the feast day of the martyr Valentine. It remained as such until as recently as 1969, when it was officially dropped from the ecclesiastical calendar. But by then it had successfully over-written the pagan festival it had been intended to displace.
While Lupercalia was superseded by the feast of St Valentine, which was itself superseded by the choco-centric secular Valentine’s day; now the Church designates this as National Marriage Week, seeking to promote and reaffirm the values of Christian marriage. Values of enduring love, of mutual support, of commitment through thick and thin, sickness and health, poverty and wealth.
So what we have, through time, is a continuing dialogue between Christian values that the Church wants to promote; and the practices and festivities of a contemporary culture. And this kind of engagement has always been a crucial part of Christian thought and practice. The church has always been married to the world it inhabits, and is constantly having to adapt within that relationship, yet while always trying to maintain an integrity with the gospel, and with its own spiritual traditions. It is a marriage that is not always easy; but to which the Church is utterly committed.
Today, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, which hasn’t happened since 1945. The bad news is that it will happen again in 2024 and 2029. The spirit of modern Valentine’s day, while it does on one hand promote the friendly gesture of affirmation to friends, also seems to promote love-behaviour that can be damaging and confidence-destroying. The sending and receiving of Valentines can be fun, but it can also make some people feel very vulnerable. The cards get bawdier each year, and we are now encouraged to give gifts to our pets, and it is expected that we have spent £200 million on cards and gifts for our pets. On a day when we reflect on the love and mercy of God, this is a strange manifestation of love indeed. So what was once a festival intended to commemorate what lengths a man went to in love of his Lord Jesus Christ, has become a festival stolen by card makers, and exploited by vendors of booze and chocolate.
The original purpose of a feast day - to help us focus on the love of God for humanity shown in the life, passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the love and truth of which others suffered, has been obscured by a coating of candy. And that chocolate covering gets thicker and thicker, such that the kernel of truth at the centre becomes more and more insignificant. The truth, and the joy of God’s message of love in Jesus Christ is veiled behind a sentimentalized product that speaks often of sweet seduction and unreal relationships.
The escapism manifested in some of our modernised festivals is doubly ironic, not only because they used to be Christian, but because before that they were pagan. It is not a conscious move, nor a hateful one. The loss of the meaningful centre, as it were, is due to nothing more or less than indifference. And it is indifference, not hatred, that is the opposite of love.
Valentine’s day has become what it has become because of an indifference to Love, not out of respect for it. If love can be seen as something that lasts barely longer than a box of chocolates, then it is no surprise that we devote only one day a year to it. But it is just as well that we only devote one day a year to whatever this kind of love is. And Valentine is still invoked as its patron saint. But Valentine is not, nor ever has been the patron saint of love. He has become the patron of the trivialisation of love; and of a form of emotional indifference to the Gospel. The patron, perhaps, of the chocolatisation of Christianity.
But we are not here this evening to celebrate St Valentine’s Day, and the substance of the moment is ash, not chocolate. This evening we move from chocolate to ashes, and for some this is sacrificial as we prepare to abandon our minor addictions and delights and enter a period of self-denial. And the ash is a memento mori - a reminder of death.
‘remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’.
Yet love and death are connected. Love is stronger than death, and it is the love of God that gives us the victory over death.
St Valentine, with his modern emphasis on chocolate, reminds us what we are turning away from. Not literally chocolate perhaps, but, chocolate represents the trivial, sweet, short lived, escapist, hollow-centred nothingness that a life without faith amounts to. It is worth remembering that today the beginning of Lent and Easter Day, are marked this year by chocolate festivals, and so this Lent really does reveal the chocolatisation of Christianity. So many will begin and end Lent with chocolate-covered faces.
Yet today we put ashes on our faces. Ashes made from palms, which we shall wave in 5 weeks time before entering the Holy Week that precedes the day of resurrection, on which our chocolate eggs will not be hollow with the absence of faith, but full of hope with the emptiness of the raised Saviour’s tomb. And on that day, as every day, we shall not be commemorating a patron saint of chocolate, nor even a patron saint of love. For we do not need a patron saint of love, because we have a God of Love. A God who loved the world so much that he sent his own son not to condemn the world but to save the world and give us all eternal life. To whom be all worship, sacrifice and love, on this and every day. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield 14/2/2018