When I was a kid, I was taught to sail a boat. It was at a summer camp off the Penobscot Bay in Maine, and we learned the basics of sail-handling, working as a team, and navigation. It was great fun and it was also no time to fool around. One could get clonked on the head by the sail when coming about, or fall in the water, or burn your hands on the line. It was a blast, but one of the lessons I learned at nine years was focus on what one was doing. To be present, attentive, and disciplined.
As one of the wise “old” college-aged camp counselors would say while navigating the sail boat across the bay, “this is no time to be cute.”
I am remembering that lesson because this is one of those strange years when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and when Easter is also April Fool’s Day. This is no time to be cute.
One must tread carefully on Ash Wednesday, because what is called up on this day most centered on penance is at once deeply personal and very core to our being and identity. We are acknowledging that we can’t go it alone. We recognize our limitedness. Together we will stare into our mortality. We will face the fact that we are broken. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.
There. I said it. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.
It is quite one thing to mimic basketball brackets to think about saints and the nature of holy discipleship as we move through Lent, but it is quite something else to give into the temptation to mute the depth of the sin, the hurt, the pain, and the implications of human sin with an excess of cleverness.
So, I would hope that we avoid the temptation to get cute and draw heart shaped ashes on each other’s heads on Ash Wednesday instead of the smudged cross. And, come Easter morning, it will be interesting to see how we use the most obvious punchline ever handed to every preacher on the planet.
Giving in to the temptation of the cute distracts people from the core task of Lent, Holy Week, and the Triduum: that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”
We will also miss the irony that while the world is passing out chocolates or playing pranks, it is also revealing (and trying to cover over) our deep need for love, our brokenness of heart and spirit, the depth of division and loneliness, and our powerlessness. One day, the world will be dripping with sentimentality and, on another, crazy with cheap tricks. And on those very days, we will know precisely where the discomfort comes from.
That doesn’t mean we can’t use the days to talk about what’s really going on. We should never pass up the opportunity to speak about God’s love for us in the person of Jesus. After all, everyone else in the room will be noticing the coincidence along with the preacher. But this is not a moment for cuteness, it is moment of humility. And six week and a half weeks later, it won’t be a time for pranks, but for awe.
God loves us, and through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is going to the depth of human sin, and into the reality of the human heart, the contrast between what the world values and how God responds could not be plainer. Underneath secular Valentine’s Day is a search for connection and love. And certainly on the first day of April we will discover again that in the resurrection God has turned human wisdom into folly and what will seem foolish to the world is God’s gateway to life.
It might be a good time to crack open the forgotten Inkling, Charles Williams, and think about how romantic love might point us to divine love. There might be a chance to think about the contrast (and tension) between God’s foolishness and our own.
See? There’s plenty to contemplate without resorting to heart shaped candies with clever sayings or lame pranks in the hope that we will seem cool. We don’t need to belabor the irony to get the joke.
As for me, I plan to transfer the feasts. We Episcopalians are pretty good at that. I will take my beloved out the weekend before Valentine’s Day, and I will save the foolishness for after Easter dinner (and the liturgical nap).
The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania. He blogs at Fun n’ games in the Kingdom of God