The collision of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day on the same date this year feels a little strange, yet there’s also something poetic about it.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is an act of love to remind each other of our mortality. It is a hopeful act, hopeful that the naming of this one thing we all have in common — our inevitable deaths — might actually affect how we live and love others. For Christians, it is a reminder that by his death, Christ bound us together as members of the same family, all God’s children loved unconditionally.
Making decisions about end-of-life scenarios when no threat is imminent could feel awkward or inappropriate, but for any who have survived the death of a loved one, the amount of heartache and relational conflict avoided by their choices being made known ahead of time testifies that planning ahead is an act of love toward your nearest and dearest. The political football of “death panels” has long been deflated, and faith-based or secular initiatives abound, so that broaching the subject is easily accessible.
So let’s have this talk, this Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday for the sake of our beloved family around the world, our siblings in Christ.
The ways we typically say “I love you” are killing our family members and the earth we all call home. If we actually talk about this, become informed, surely we would change our ending life decision-making, right? In our global economy, the ways we are draining the life out of those who are barely scraping by are pretty well hidden. But make no mistake, several of the stereotypical gestures of Valentine’s Day are killers: cut flowers, chocolates, and diamonds.
Journalists for national publications such as TIME and The Atlantic have been writing about the persistent life-endangering conditions within these industries for years. Fair trade certifications exist because the offenses are so egregious in the industries without fair trade standards: human trafficking and exploitation, environmental degradation, even child labor. If one remains committed to the expected gifts of Valentine’s Day, there are options for more ethical choices: fair trade chocolates, ethically sourced diamonds, or living, locally-raised plants. At minimum, we can stop forcing our (nameless and distant to us) loved ones in Christ to face their mortality through our Valentine’s purchases. Yet we’re still buying.
Maybe this will be the year it changes; the year our theology changes our spending habits? Ash Wednesday already calls out the hypocrisy in us, when thousands of faithful read the scripture about not showing our piety to the world but praying in secret, then get a big old cross of black ash smudged on our foreheads to wear around all day.
In many congregations, the ashes are made from burning the Palm Sunday palms left from the previous year. This is another reminder of our fickleness, since the same crowds who shouted “Hosanna!” and waved palms as Jesus entered Jerusalem are understood to have turned on him by the end of Holy Week, shouting “Crucify him!” We are so very fallible, mortal, and deadly.
Furthermore, ministers teach each other this trick: mix the ashes with a little oil to make a paste, so it will stick. Don’t use water, as that can cause skin problems. I read into that, that what we need is anointing, to make the meaning of Ash Wednesday stay with us (you choose: anointing of the sick, or anointing of the chosen royalty?) We need to keep with us the knowledge that we are about to die and that God chooses us to lead.
So when we wear those ashes on Valentine’s Day, will we allow ourselves to narrow love down to a private matter for that one person with whom we are in an intimate relationship at the expense of all others? Or might we be emboldened to live like we are dying and love more widely?
What will it take for me to consider the child forced to cut flowers during the mad dash to Valentine’s Day as my niece?
What will convince me that my brother has to have a predictable income to survive on a small-scale cocoa farm, without ravaging the earth with short-sighted agricultural techniques?
How will I come to care about young people who leave school at 12 to work in a dangerous Congolese mine, desperately hoping to find a diamond so their families can eat?
It’s a leap from sympathy to identifying with and loving these strangers like family. Jesus Christ himself is going to have to change my heart.
None of Us Lives or Dies to Ourselves
Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). We belong to God, whether we live or whether we die. That is as true for me as it is for Gustavo in Nicaragua, or Mbuyi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We all belong to God, but they are dying without a thought from us, because of how we are living.
We are all siblings, adopted into the same family through the actions of Christ. Jesus says this explicitly in Matthew 12:50, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” In addition to a “family,” one of Christ’s and our favorite metaphors is that we are Christ’s body in the world, yet does this body show signs of the self-emptying actions of Jesus described in Philippians 2?
Love Your Beloved by Loving Strangers
We could give our beloved ones some evidence we have thought about our siblings in Christ, near and far, and made choices to love them even if it makes others mock us. It might look like this:
“I didn’t get you chocolates this year, but I donated chickens to develop a sustainable food source and livelihood for a family in a developing country.”
“Instead of an engagement diamond, let’s fund digging a well for a community in dire need of a sustainable, clean water source.”
“The flowers I usually buy liven up our table for a week, but I found this way we can support re-foresting part of the rain forest while training people in agricultural practices that don’t require cutting it down.”
Set the value of a physical gift your beloved can hold and see, next to the value of physical changes in the lives of others. God’s love is not only for one person, but for the entire world. We can choose to show our love for one another by loving more of those whom God also loves. It is the love God has for us, despite our being only ashes and dust.