Love in the Ashes

Reading Time: 3 mins

What if the dissonance in this calendrical coincidence can be harmonized into a deeper melody?

Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday make for strange bedfellows, don’t they? Once in a blue moon, these two meet on the same day. Typically, we would argue these holidays share little in common. One celebrates the joys of romantic love with affectionate gestures and fragrant red roses. The other stuns us with sobriety, profound solemness, and powdery, black ashes. But what if the dissonance in this calendrical coincidence can be harmonized into a deeper melody?

Despite all its beauty, love carries with it the risk of pain, loss, and sadness, after all. To love is to be vulnerable, to open oneself to the possibility of disappointment. Misunderstandings, disagreements, rejection, and other hurtful actions can strike a heavy blow. They can leave us defenseless. Similarly, the pain of losing someone we love deeply can be one of the most intense forms of emotional suffering. Death is a harsh reminder of the frailty of life. When it comes near, it violently disrupts our lives. It can even rattle our sense of identity and purpose. Earthly life and love can seem so…temporary.

The other complication with human love is that it is marred by sin. Martin Luther spoke of our nature as being incurvatus in se—curved in on ourselves. In other words, we can’t help but focus on our own needs and desires. Apply this idea to love, and we recognize our natural tendency to treat love as a transaction. We give affection in the hope of receiving something in return. On earth, there are rules and winners and losers in every relationship. It’s one reason why we talk about the ‘game’ of love. Otherwise, there would be no need for scorekeeping. 

Even our most cherished relationships can become idols if we aren’t careful. C.S. Lewis illustrates such a scenario in the character of Pam from his book "The Great Divorce.” Pam lost her son, Michael. When Lewis finds her, she is in a painful dialogue with her own brother on the precipice of heaven. She insists she can only be happy if she is immediately reunited with her son. After all, what could be wrong with a mother’s love for her child? At this, her brother Reginald rebukes her: “You’re treating God only as a means to Michael…You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature…He also loves. He also has suffered. He also has waited a long time.” In the end, her possessive love becomes a barrier to her entering into the presence of God. Ironically, it also keeps her from returning to Michael. She just can’t let go. As Lewis’ angelic guide says later, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.” 

One day, either through the firestorms of life or the decay of time, our earthly love will end up in ashes. Indeed, it has to, but thankfully that is not the end of the story. Amid the ashes of our failed attempts at love, the gospel offers a beacon of hope. It tells us there is another, deeper love story going on. The love in this story does not falter. It knows no contingencies, and it existed before time itself. It stretches beyond the horizon of eternity.

And it is a personal love directed at you, specifically.

One day, either through the firestorms of life or the decay of time, our earthly love will end up in ashes. Indeed, it has to, but thankfully that is not the end of the story.

Your truly beloved knows your name. He knows every detail about you. He affectionately counts the little, occasionally gray hairs on your head. He smiles at your unique quirkiness. He proudly watches as you exercise your natural gifts. He commiserates with you in your suffering–it pains him to see you in misery. He hangs on every word you speak to him. You are the sole object of his affection. 

Yet, in your restlessness and desire for something more, you pushed him away and left. He was devastated, of course. But he was slow to anger. He was patient because he truly loved you. When you soon found yourself hopelessly entangled in the chains of consequence, he searched you out. He found you and cut you loose. He had a personal choice to make. It would mean giving up himself to get to you. He didn't hesitate. He stepped down into the ashes of our existence. He traded his life for your freedom, sealing his passion for you with one final, selfless act of sacrificial love. And as you return to him, fully restored yet still feeling as if you reek with the stench of betrayal, he assures you that the price has already been paid; you are safe in his arms forever. 

Maybe the juxtaposition of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday is helpful to us Christians. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the ultimate act of love and show us just how closely love and death are intertwined. As we receive our ashes, we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. This year we can remember the love we have lost in the ashes of our lives: the imperfect relationships and the loved ones who are now gone from this life. How we too will die one day and how we need not fear that day when it comes. 

The real love story of our lives ends in a ‘happily ever after.’ Christ’s love for us, initiated in the vulnerable sacrifice on the cross and completed in his resurrection, seals a future–our future–where every tear is wiped away, and where separation and loss are no more.