Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. While some may call this a “Hallmark Holiday,” I always have a more interesting feeling about the 14th of February. My favorite - or one of my favorite - restaurants back home in Chicago is called Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinders. In fact, I love the place so much I have the address memorized...2121 N. Clark Street. Across the street is one of those antique stores that can get you in a whole lot of trouble if you have time to kill...and believe me, you will have a lot of time to kill waiting for your table to be available!
But just steps from that great shop and across from the restaurant is 2122 N. Clark...the site of a now torn down unassuming building that figured prominently in a famous mobster massacre - of which my home is so very well known. Al Capone and Bugs Moran had a Northside/Southside Irish/Italian gang war between one another...thus resulting in this forever memory of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Not so romantic of a Valentine’s Day dinner site across the street from where six people were shot to death by Tommy Guns and shotguns. I, however, did not see the irony in it until the middle of a Valentine's Day dinner date oh so very long ago.
Not that the day is a time to think of a bloody massacre, but for some reason I cannot shrug the idea of the connection, even being over 800 miles from that place. What astounds me this year is the thought of wishing someone a Happy Valentine’s Day with an ash cross smudged across my forehead. Because after all, many folks connect Ash Wednesday (just as they do Good Friday) into some sort of somber funeral like event in the church calendar.
“Bring your Valentine to church on Ash Wednesday” were the words spoken by Ann during announcements on Sunday I believe...and it hit me. The contrast between the darkness of death and the beauty of love could shape that day for many people.
It was not only gangster on gangster crime in 1929 that resulted in the death of six people...none of whom were necessarily innocent of the mob violence in the city. You would, however, be able to easily find the pictures of a grieving widow...or a now childless mother that lost two of her sons...and others that lost loved ones that day. It is a reminder that these were in fact human people like you and me.
Death does not have a “type” and neither does love. Good and bad people will always experience these two things at least once in their lives. It is not just death and taxes that are guarantees in our lives.
Love is a guarantee too - even when it is shrouded by death.
Ash Wednesday falling on the same day as that famous “Hallmark Holiday,” however is not something that I would suggest has the contrast of death and love like it did in 1929.
I would propose this:
Absolute love is what one of the early stories tell us about St. Valentine. While he was a prisoner in Rome for performing forbidden marriages he healed a terminally ill daughter of his jailor and when he was lead to his execution he left a letter to her signed “your Valentine.”
Love can heal many of the ills of world.
Ash Wednesday reminds us not just that we are dust and to dust we shall return...but it also reminds us of the absolute love of God for not just us...but even for sinful Chicago mobsters. God’s love is so absolute, so radical that even Jesus had to experience what it was to be made from the dust of the earth when he was born to Mary on that Christmas night.
Love is even more powerful than death.
So that ash cross also reminds us of love eternal. A love that will endure even the darkness of death. The cross, a once feared method of torture and execution, is now a reminder of deep and compassionate love of a God that walked beside us...lived with us...and died for us.
So yes, Ash Wednesday is a reminder of death...be it from a booth in a window across from an awful site in history or from our pew in church. But more importantly, let it be a reminder of love that would never surrender to death or evil. That is the good news - the good news of Jesus Christ who loves and cherishes you, me, and all the world.
Do come, receive your cross, and tell others that it is a sign of absolute love and compassion. Tell others it is your commitment to being a holy person of God and a channel for all that is good in our world.
7:15 am Service of the Word and Imposition of Ashes
7:15 pm Holy Communion and the Imposition of Ashes
Yours in Christ,