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On love and ashes

On love and ashes

Amy Plender explores the significance of Ash Wednesday falling on St. Valentine’s Day.

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This Wednesday, for the first time since 1957, is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day.  The collision of the sacred and ‘secular’ brings a peculiar significance to both. 

Never one to do things by halves, the Early Church records at least three possible historical figures for the inspiration of a saint whose feast day falls on 14th February.  These refer, variously, to a Christian priest who defied the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus’ ban on marriage (in order to maintain the numbers of single men available for conscription), by conducting Christian marriages in secret – he was caught and executed on 14th February 269; to the bishop of Interamna (modern Terni, Italy), who was coincidentally martyred on the same date but on a different year; or to a man who was executed with a group of other Christians in Africa, of whom, apart from his name and rough date of death, nothing else is known.  

Given the scarcity of information about any of these figures, it is entirely possible that they are all retellings of the same story, or that any or all are factually inaccurate.  Yet that does not negate the poignancy and significance of a Saint Valentine.  Whatever the details, it is fairly likely that a Christian named Valentine was prepared to die for his faith, and has been (sort–of) remembered for it.  More than a secular festival of romance sponsored by Hallmark Cards, what we can tell of his life story reminds us of the gritty reality of the life of faith in history – and in the present, in many parts of the world today.  It is peculiarly ironic that so valiant a life and so gruesome a death are now marked in so saccharine a festival. 

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, traditionally a time of fasting and study, as Christians begin to prepare for Easter.  The forty days of Lent echo the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, and historically were a time to think of one’s mortality and sinfulness – symbolised by the practice of “ashing” during the Ash Wednesday service, when the minister marks the foreheads of the congregation with ashes in the shape of a cross.  

Far from being morbid and gloomy, ashing, and the observation of Lent in general, affords Christians a rare space in today’s busy world for self–reflection and to orientate oneself to towards the horror, mystery, and joy of the Easter weekend.  Sin is an awkward concept: all too easy to misinterpret and ascribe to others without question and to oneself without mercy.  One of the most helpful definitions of it, to my mind, comes from writer Francis Spufford: ‘HPtFtP,’ or the ‘Human Propensity to F*** things Up.’  The grace of Lent is that it makes space for us to acknowledge our failures and weakness, whilst, forty days later, offering a solution in the joy, hope, and redemption held in the Easter story.

The exhortation often used by the minister when ashing is “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  On one level, this is a stark reminder of the brevity of human lives – a verbal Memento Mori or Vanitas painting such as this one, when skulls or hourglasses were included in still life paintings to challenge the viewers to make the best of this life, in the hope of securing their entrance to the hereafter. 

On another, it’s deeply empowering.  Like Adam and Eve, whom the Genesis creation stories describe as being made from dust by God in the Garden of Eden, we are made from stardust, the atoms in our bodies first formed in the furnace of the stars.   Yet, more than just a cluster of atoms and organs, Christians see all humans bearing the imago dei, the image of God; the Bible speaks of God’s breath, ruach, or Spirit, pnuema, as the life–force of Creation, which both animates the first humans’ bodies, and galvanises the disciples into action.  That humans are created by God is intrinsic to the Christian interpretation of human existence. In the midst of the anticipation and sorrow of Ash Wednesday, there is encouragement. 

Today, a Valentine’s Ash Wednesday, is a unique paradox.  The festival ostensibly about romance, and appropriated by commercialism by way of folklore, originates with a martyrdom (or several).  It’s easy to dismiss Valentine’s Day as capitalist folly, but at its cellophane–wrapped heart is a deeper, bloodier love – the kind that enables someone to give up their life for the sake of something greater.  Ash Wednesday takes this further.  Ostensibly about sin and mortality, it allows those who observe it to prepare themselves for Easter, and for the sacrifice which for Christians is the greatest gift of love of all.    

Image from getgoneblog.com used under this Creative Commons licence

Amy Plender

Amy Plender

Amy joined Theos in August 2017, having previously worked with London–based and international non–profit organisations, and in English and Scottish print journalism. She holds an MA in Divinity and an MTh from the University of Edinburgh. Research areas include the theological responses to suffering and mental health, theology and the arts, liturgical practice, and interfaith dialogue.

Posted 14 February 2018

Church, Easter, Faith

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