From the President: Ashes, Cross-Bearing, Easter, and Fools

The last time it happened was in 1945. This year it happens again – Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day fall on the same day. On February 14, many of us will not only open a Valentines card but also receive ashes on our forehead. If that’s not a strange enough convergence, consider that in 2018 Easter will share April 1 with April Fools Day.

For most Christians it is a double intrusion. It’s hard enough these days to get the faithful to focus on the church’s cadence of time with the day of resurrection at its summit. Now the first day of Lent will compete with chocolates, flowers and sweetheart dinners, and Easter will contend with practical jokes and hoaxes.

Certainly Valentines Day has its Christian overtones. Traditionally the holiday observes the martyrdom of a saint about whom we know little. Many beautiful legends swirl about St. Valentine, not the least of which is his healing of a young blind girl and his sending her a message signed, “Your Valentine.”  It’s not too long of a leap, therefore, to suggest that being marked with a cross of ashes reminds us that, like St. Valentine, to bear the cross of Christ is to risk persecution and even death. One who experienced the connection between ashes and martyrdom on April 1, 1945, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was martyred eight days later. He said it well in The Cost of Discipleship: “The cross is laid on every Christian. . .When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Ashes certainly symbolize Baptism, death, rebirth, and repentance. They also mark us as those who bear the cross of Christ even unto death.

But April Fools Day on Easter Sunday? We can probably thank Pope Gregory XIII for April Fools. In 1582, he decreed the adoption of the “Gregorian calendar” — named after himself — which moved New Year’s celebrations from the April 1 to January 1. Those who didn’t get the message and continued to celebrate on April 1 were ridiculed and, because they were seen as foolish, they were called April Fools. By the 18th Century, especially in England, the day was given over to pranks and put-ons.

Even here, though, just as Christians are marked from Baptism with the “ashes” of dying and living with Christ, we are also still seen as fools. The apostle Paul described our faith in the crucified and risen Christ as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:27). We look and sound like fools to those who do not understand and share our faith. That has always been a problem for us, resulting in the martyrdom of cross-bearers like Paul of Tarsus, Valentine, and Bonhoeffer. 

Given that history, I suspect we followers of Christ will be sure that Ash Wednesday and Easter dominate their respective days. In our conversations, though, it will not hurt to welcome this year’s intruders, finding love and cross-bearing in our ashes and joy in being fools for Christ.