I love that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year. Valentine’s Day — that bane to single people and the unsentimental, the feast day of our culture’s obsession with love and romance — is momentarily subverted by a reminder of what love really looks like: self-denial and commitment. Ash Wednesday in many ways is one of the most passionate and powerful expressions of love — God’s love for us, and our love for God. (Sorry Sarah McLachlan, it’s way better than chocolate.)
Ash Wednesday and Lent, the season of reflection and preparation for Easter, take love to a whole new level. Lent is a season of self-denial, a pushing away of distractions that keep us from enjoying our First Love. My priest likes to say, when imposing ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return — and remember that you are beloved."
In other words, life is short, and too often our priorities are completely jacked up. And though Lent is a time to mourn the ways we forget God, it is also a time to remember that we are still beloved.
In our human relationships, we would do well to remember the brevity and brutality of life. We won’t always have time to tell say “I love you” before our beloved can never hear it again. We can “stay connected” and always want to make time, but never quite get around to it; we can forget our partners in the tyranny of the urgent, or in the demands of parenthood; we can lose our loved ones far sooner than any of us anticipate.
Valentine’s Day does a great job at communicating love for one day, but it lacks the impetus or mechanism to help us do the hard work of love. And one thing required for the hard work of love is a repudiation of the very things that keep us from loving well. Ash Wednesday, with its accompanying fast, is that repudiation.
Falling in love makes you reprioritize your life. In those first blushes and crushes of human love, we can get butterflies in the pit of our stomachs; we forget to eat or lose our appetites. We can put off good things or even tasks that once seemed necessary and absolute because we cannot tear ourselves away from the object of our affection (eventually, my now-husband and I would go on grocery dates because we really needed food, but we also wanted to be together). We go into “hibernation” when we first fall in love, spending as much time with our beloved as we can.
When our beloved is God, Lent can be that hibernation period to fall in love all over again. God responds to the sin that keeps us from divine relationship, not by punishing us or withdrawing from us, but by wooing us away from other, lesser gods and back to the lover of our souls.
We even receive a special gift on Ash Wednesday. The ashes imposed on our foreheads are a sign of repentance and mourning, showing the severity with which we take our falling short. We are not supposed to display our fasting and repentance in a pious way, but we’re also not supposed to wash them off.
To me, those ashes are a mark and reminder, as deep and personal as jewelry or flowers. Those ashes show that we are loved, and that our beloved’s commitment to us is constant and true, even when we are not. They show that divine Love is not just about feelings or sentiments, but about death to everything that hinders it.
The ashes remind us that the heart of love is laying down one’s rights and one’s life for our beloved. When we first fall in love, we easily let go of things we held dear and thought we couldn’t live without, because we have found something greater. I’ve only been married for nine months, but I can already see how the human heart can snap right back into its worst habits and desires as relationships grow comfortable and familiar. Our beloveds don’t need candy or sentimental gestures. They need the passion and commitment that come from love’s first awakening.
It’s because of the tendency to forget our First Love — to rely on emotions and feelings instead of true sacrifice and commitment — that we need Ash Wednesday this Valentine’s Day. In Jesus, God puts aside everything to make us God’s beloved on the cross. This is not a sentimental gesture. It is a whole-hearted, full-throated commitment. Jesus is all in, and Lent is an invitation for us to join him.
For those who observe, may we be willing and able to say yes.