On a day typically known by the presence of hearts, flowers, and boxes of chocolates, many Christians around the world will today add the symbol of ashes. Not since 1945 have Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided as they do today. At first glance the holiday and the holy day may not seem to have much in common. However, if one reflects more deeply, I believe there are actually very similar lessons to be learned from both occasions.
Most people are less concerned about the historical origins of Valentine’s Day which has both Christian and secular roots. Rather, we tend to associate this day as a time set apart to express our love in tangible and outward forms for those whom we hold dear in special and intimate ways. As a child I always looked forward to picking out my favorite set of cards to give to classmates and then decorating a shoe box to hold the Valentines that would be exchanged with all the other students. In later years my excitement leaned more to a romantic dinner and an occasional surprise delivery of a beautiful floral bouquet. Regardless of the symbols, whether a card or candy, love is at the core.
The primary symbol to begin the penitential season of Lent is a cross of ashes traced upon the forehead often with the words: “Remember that you are dust, and into dust you shall return.” Neither the blackened smudge nor the words seem very romantic or intimate as much as the symbols of Valentine’s Day, and yet I believe this day also has love at its core.
The season of Lent is set aside for Christians to reflect more deeply on their relationship with the greatest Lover of all – God, who loves us unconditionally as Creator, as Redeemer, as Sustaining Spirit.
As Creator, God’s first Valentine love letter to us was Creation itself. Many scientists say that the universe is almost 14 billion years old. Some people of faith recognize that God has been speaking to us through that evolving creation even beyond those billions of years. Remembering that “we are dust” can be a reminder that we are literally made of stardust. As one scientist notes: “It’s a great human-interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way.” To acknowledge our inextricable connection to the universe as sharers of stardust is to acknowledge that we have been loved by the Creator before we even came into being. We share in the miracle of always evolving galaxies. Remember that we are dust!
And our Creator continued to love us by becoming human in Jesus and showing us how to live our daily lives in humility, mercy, non-violence, and sacrificial love. Even in his own birth Jesus chose to be born in the dust of a stable and laid in a feeding trough surrounded by animals so that even the most lowly of places and people were deserving of his love. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are all Valentine love letters for us, blessed to share in his humanity and divinity. Remember that we are dust!
God continues to send us daily Valentines of love through the Sustaining and Holy Spirit who guides and directs us in our daily lives. If we have eyes open to see, ears open to hear, and hearts open to love we will recognize God’s Valentines all around us – in the beauty of nature, and in the bonds of family and friends. God’s love letters exist also in the dust of problems and challenges that surround us in our own lives and in our world. Our struggles provide us opportunities to seek God’s support, even as we strive to extend God’s love to hurting hearts and suffering spirits. Remember that we are dust!
May this Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday observance be the beginning of an entire season devoted to receiving and offering Valentine love letters through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Remember that we are dust and into dust we shall return.