The title is not mine. I glimpsed it more than once on different blogs and sermon series titles, but the words in this title did make me step back and think… wrestle with whether I thought they hit upon something deeper than a catchy title. I was trying to sort out mingled thoughts and emotions that had left me reeling on February 14, 2018.
I read somewhere that the last time Valentine’s Day fell on Ash Wednesday was back in 1945. The year our parents or grandparents celebrated the ending of World War II. During that year everyone cried with joy and relief that the war was finally over. As the first few months unfold in 2018, we cannot help but wonder what this year will have in store. Already we have tasted tears many times over this year culminating with the Florida high school massacre on Valentine’s Day.
It occurred to me today that given the blur of shootings that has happened over the past several months, that US soil is bizarrely beginning to bear more resemblance to war zones we are used to seeing on TV in distant lands than I would have ever thought possible. Especially in terms of random killings that seems to have no coherent narrative or rationale. When these tragedies occur in the Middle East we reflexively chalk it up to “religion” and when it happens on our soil we are equally reflexive in our rationale of chalking it up to either the lack of gun control or mental illness.
What if something deeper is at work – something that goes to the root of what is the source of the “mental illness” that would prompt someone to purchase an assault rifle with the intention to kill? Because really it is not the gun, nor even the availability of a gun that really hits at the root of the problem – a teenager wanting to kill other teenagers. Neither is it any more of an answer to say it is “mental illness” because that also does not get at the source of such a violent “mental illness”.
What if what was really ailing our country could be traced back to something that was present in emblematic ways within the two holidays that collided on Wednesday, February 14, 2018 – Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. In one way it seems odd that these two days happen to fall on the same day. They seem to contradict one another. In our culture’s obsession with finding the perfect soul mate to live out your days with, Valentine’s Day could be considered our modern cultural’s high point in the holiday calendar. It is the day you assess how close you are to your “heart’s dreams” being realized. In our current cultural framework (borne out in movies, pop songs, dramas and videos ad nauseam), your life is only on track if you are in a relationship or heading in that direction.
As far as our modern conception of Valentine’s day there is very little value or focus given to anyone that doesn’t fit the romantic paradigm. Still, if you don’t fit into the romantic framework, you are given an out. You can pursue your own individual glory – your own pursuit of excellence. “Be true to yourself” is the mantra of this individualistic culture. If you don’t get no love from anyone else, be okay with who you are! Be an individual. If you can’t get another to love you in this world, at least love yourself well.
So the modern commandments are still defined in terms of love. But instead of “Love your God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself”, the new commandments run more along the lines of “Love your partner if you can find one, but always be sure to love yourself first.”
If this is the highest thing we have given our young people to aim for, the highest thing that they can achieve in life, do we wonder that their understanding of themselves and their connection to others is shallow, fractured and distorted? Where are we to point our young people who want to know who they are and where they can find love that endures when they find themselves exiled from the hubbub of Valentine’s day exalting the happiness that can only be found in a relationship gushing the emotion “in love”?
One answer may be found in the second (perhaps less popular) holiday that is commemorated on February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday. The day that looks forward to the coming death of Jesus Christ on the cross. This profound picture of what true love does when it lays its life down for others. This is the side of love that is often missing during Valentine’ Day festivities filled with pink hearts and chocolate candies. Ash Wednesday speaks of our inevitable mortality (a fact conveniently left out of our current western cultural paradigm that pictures human love as the doorway to “happily ever after”) – Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.
We tend to recoil from these words.
They do not seem to have anything to do with our understanding of being “in love” or at least love as we think of it in its hollywood-watered-down versions. What does ashes and dust have to do with roses and kisses and champaign? And yet there is a connection. When we enter into true relationship, we invite another’s brokenness into our own. How we deal with that brokenness is called love. And love always means death. When Jesus defined love he said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
It is in this death that the cycle of retaliation is broken. Forgiveness is a kind of death. Death to the rights you could have claimed because you have been wronged. Violated. Trespassed against. Live in relationship long enough and you will be wronged. Love is not an even give-and-take contract. For Love to triumph, it must cover a “multitude of sins”.
Through the cross and faith in Christ, death became only a doorway to greater life. A doorway through which we all must pass. If we live well, we will die many deaths before our bodies die. The apostle Paul said, “I die daily.” And each death is a burying of that which was part of an old life that we might embrace newness of life in Christ. In fact, C.S. Lewis once said, “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”
This is counter-intuitive to how our cultural stories frame the concept of love. The cultural paradigms imply that the depth of love can be experienced without God. They portray our identity in life as something that can be created out of nothing rather than received from a source outside of ourselves. The language that Jesus uses when he talks about life and love sound like paradoxical nonsense. He told his disciples, “Those who love their life in this world will lose it. [But] Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:25). How can death be a doorway for life? Aren’t they polar opposites? Constantly at war? One vanquishing the other…
If they were equal opposites, this would be true. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are celebrated in the recognition that they are not equal opposites. One is stronger than the other. One will finally die forever and one will live forever. The reason that our present cultural stories fail us is that they only relate to life on earth. With only a mechanistic understanding of ourselves, there is little rationale that can be given for a love or respect of others that supersedes your own safety or denies your relational needs. With this partial accounting of who we are, the end result is a shallow portrayal of love that does not value sacrifice and a self-driven sense of purpose.
When we look at ourselves honestly, we discover that we are bankrupt of both a depth of love and life which endures. We are told by our culture to simply look inward to find who we are and yet when we grasp for something to hold onto, it eludes us. Our heart’s emotions, affections and loyalties are continually shifting and changing. We find nothing that stands the test of time that can adequately serve as the foundation on which our sense of self can be derived. This is because we are time-laden creatures. We are continually shifting with the experiences of time – every moment becoming someone else. The only way we can truly be grounded in a deathless identity is to be tied to an identity which is eternal. An identity that does no change or shift with time. An anchor point that is the same yesterday, today and forever.
No human can boast of such changelessness – save Christ alone.
He is the only cornerstone that will not change over time. He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is the only one who opens the door for relationship with the God of holiness who is the source and definition of Love. It is for this purpose and relationship we are made. Every other aim we strive for will be ultimately frustrated. Apart from Him, all that we are and all that we love will eventually crumble into ashes and dust. But with Him is life eternal and hope forevermore!
As C.S. Lewis sums up, “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”