Love and Ashes

Last Wednesday was Valentine’s Day, which also happened to fall on Ash Wednesday this year and I have to say I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it.  A coworker asked if I had any Valentine’s plans and I promptly responded “lamenting and putting ashes on my head.”  

I went to an Ash Wednesday service at my church, and our pastor was joking about the collision of the two holidays – “What could be more romantic than talking about the fact that we’re all going to return to ash someday?”  He was joking, of course, pointing out the comical contrast between celebrating a holiday about love alongside one about death, but the more I thought about it, the more it actually made a lot of sense to me.

Look – I have nothing against Valentine’s Day.  I’m all for love and chocolate and teddy bears and the entertainment value of watching twenty men in suits looking panicked at 5pm as they try to grab the last bouquet of flowers from the corner stand on their way home.  At work we decorated shoe boxes with 90s-era puffy stickers and did a Valentine card exchange, the office was full of people wearing red and pink, and there was plenty of chocolate to go around.  It was delightful.

But those things  – the teddy bears and flowers and chocolates – they are love in the same way that cotton candy is food – it’s fun and whimsical and sweet but it’s not nourishing, deeply satisfying.  Cotton candy gets all the press, but a hearty bowl of soup, full of vegetables and grains, simple food from the earth, humble and satisfying and deeply nourishing – that’s the kind of love we talked about on Ash Wednesday.  

Love – real love – isn’t death’s polar opposite, at odds with one another.  Love and death are old friends, a comfort born of familiarity.   Because the truth is love – real love- shows up in the darkest places.  It shows up at the graveside and at the funeral home.   It shows up in the darkest hour, in the keening mother’s cry for her child, in the wordless tears of a pain too deep for words.  Real love shows up in the midst of pain and brokenness, and offers hope and healing in the darkness.   

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season that culminates in Easter Sunday, a day when Christians celebrate our belief in a Love that overcame death.  Ash Wednesday and Easter Sundar are bookends, two holidays spanning a season when we are faced with the stark reality of our own mortality, and the clear-eyed opportunity to see what really matters.

My dad’s death  – sudden and unexpected and heartbreakingly unstoppable – was the most formative experience of my life because it taught me that tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.  In that moment of losing him all the things I thought mattered – achievement and accomplishments and other people’s opinions – they all fell away and what became crystal clear is that the only thing that matters in this life is love.

So spending a day devoted to love thinking about death didn’t feel odd or morbid – it felt exactly right.  It felt like the poignant reminder I needed that life is short and precious, and that at the end of it, all that matters is love.

I’m spending this Lenten season thinking deeply about love and death.  I’m thinking about love – how to love the people in my life better and more deeply, with intention, authenticity, grace, forgiveness, humility and mercy.  I’m thinking about how to center my life around loving others well – dear friends and total strangers – and let everything else emanate out from that center.   And I’m thinking about death – about how short my life is, how tomorrow is not promised to any of us, and how to make sure I’m spending this precious life well – rooted, established and growing in love.