As a minister on Ash Wednesday, I know that I should probably say something solemn about the beginning of Lent, the weight of sin, the cost of grace, and the process of reflecting upon the impending sacrifice of Christ. I should be prayerfully considering what to give up for Lent (knowing that my small sacrifice will never compare to the ultimate sacrifice that Christ gave us) and encouraging my congregation to do the same. I should be preparing to don my forehead with ashes and spending the next several weeks repenting for my various sins, knowing that my sins (along with the sins of all humanity) put Christ on the cross.
But today’s also Valentine’s Day, and I am completely enamoured by love.
I woke up this morning by giving my wife of three months a kiss on the forehead. I then snuck into the kitchen to make a special breakfast (not one that anyone who’s fasting from sugar this Lent could have enjoyed). After breakfast, we excitedly exchanged gifts because we couldn’t wait until this evening. I opened her card to me and teared up at her expressions of her love toward me and her deep understanding of my personhood. She then opened my gift (a book in which I had written various things I love about her). Her reaction was similar to mine: teary-eyed, smiling, glowing. We smiled, embraced, and then started our work day. Starting the day out with love has made it immeasurably better.
That’s how love works, isn’t it? When we know that we are deeply loved and understood by someone, it fills us with joy, peace, and compassion. It steadies us, fills us with light. It fills us with calm to be seen and affirmed for who we are. And that sense of peace inspires us to show that same compassion to others. It’s a much better motivator than guilt or shame.
But why talk about love on Ash Wednesday? Well, because the sacrifice of Christ was birthed out of love. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If Christ’s sacrifice was a sacrifice just for the sake of offering a sacrifice, then the action is hollow. If we do something just because it’s “the thing we’re supposed to do,” it’s empty. Paul had some good words on this subject:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
If I have all of the musical giftings of the cherubim and seraphim, but do not have love, my melodies are empty words. If I participate in charity and feed the poor only for the feeding’s sake, but do not have love, all I’m serving is cheap grace. If I write the most eloquent statements of faith, but do not have love, all I have are cold words on a page. If I call out all the sins of others and call them to repentance, but do not have love, then all I offer is judgement and condemnation. If I quote Bible verses to win an argument, but do not have love, all I have are cherry-picked sentences and broken relationships. If I use “God’s will” as my excuse for pushing my own agenda onto others, but do not have love, all I have is abused trust.
None of our actions do any good if they aren’t birthed out of love.
As we go into this season of Lent, I encourage you to remember this season exists because of Christ’s love. Christ loved us --all of humanity-- enough to sacrifice greatly on our behalf, and that is a gift to be taken seriously. So yes, give up something for Lent; sacrifice your chocolate for a season. But I would also encourage you to add something to your Lenten journey. I would encourage you to ask yourself what it would look like to love boldly, with the same boldness that Christ loved those society said he shouldn’t. How can you better express God’s love for others during this season? How would Christ call you to deeply affirm the personhood of those around you, the same way Christ has affirmed your own personhood?
If we don’t have love, then we have nothing.