This year, as happens from time to time, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day coincide. How do we hold love and dust together? In one sense that is what life is about – always! Living and loving in the face of the fact that we are but dust; keeping the true fast by loving and being in solidarity with all other creatures made of dust; and trusting and hoping in the life that does not end with death but emerges out of death. (Ash Wednesday.)
You may like to read what I have written on previous years.
I feel no need to do theological acrobatics to try and cleverly connect romantic love and the ancient ritual of Ash Wednesday but I do believe that there is a deep, natural and challenging task in exploring what it means to love while acknowledging that we are creatures made of dust.
Firstly we need to learn how to love courageously and tenderly and fiercely in the face of mortality. The poet Mary Oliver said it profoundly: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing our own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” As I grow older and lose more and more friends and family I am challenged to go on finding the courage and desire each day to love fully and fiercely those whose body, like mine, is beginning to fail with age and disease; to practice letting go of those I cannot imagine living without; to give myself to the pleasure and pain of life with abandon and discipline and to practice letting my breath leave me so that I might be a little readier when the time to follow my breath out of this body back to my source and true home.
Contemporary reflections on love are so often about how to find it; then how to do it well; and not so often on how to let it go. And yet if we find a soul mate one of us shall have to outlive the other. It is not right but sometimes parents outlive children, even grandparents outlive grandchildren. And it is nearly always too soon that we lose our parents and elders. And life long friends lose dear friends. We could just live passionately and desperately put off consideration of death and separation. Or as invited by this converging of celebrations we could dig fearfully deep and acknowledge that love does not so much save us from death as intensifies both life and death until we know they are the one great cycle of life, death and eternal life.
Secondly, our experience of loving intensely those who are near and dear teaches us that all creatures are precious and beloved of their creator and others. And knowing all to be precious to God we are challenged to keep the true fast of this season which is to be in solidarity with all others made of dust. When we give up food, or give alms, or spend more time in prayer and supplication, let it not be a self punishment to amend for real or imagined crimes, but let it be so that we can love more truly those we do not necessarily know personally. Modern science and social media make what the mystics knew clear that we are all related and interconnected so when we refrain from particular foods or activities we are making an impact, or reducing an impact, on others. When we give alms to just and merciful endeavours we are building up and ministering to those who are also precious children of dust. When we spend more time in prayer and supplication we are opening ourselves up to our interconnection with all else and inviting God to break open our insular hearts.
And thirdly, of course, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten journey, the perennial path of life through death that leads to resurrection life. We firstly consider this from the sidelines of reflecting again on what Jesus did for us. And as we grow in maturity of faith we increasingly identify the universal aspects of this journey as the path that we must go on in life. To be a follower of Jesus is not only to worship but to also step out on the path, on the way, of Jesus. The way of living fully open to others and deeply connected to our God; the way of loving unto death and beyond; and the way of trust and hope that will carry us through the darkness and dissolution of death into life resurrected and unbounded.
So love and dust are always the proper focus of Ash Wednesday. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come give us the courage and desire to love fully even though we are made of dust.
It is not too late to join the Lent and Easter Worship Course. Focused on the Revised Common Lectionary readings it is a course for personal devotions and study and also a great resource for preachers.