“When Ashes & Roses Collide— This Valentine’s Day, Love Bigger”

By Aana Marie Vigen, Ph.D.

For Christians, two holidays collide on February 14th: Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Ashen foreheads alongside bundles of roses and heart-shaped boxes is not an ideal pairing. Being reminded that “we are dust and will return to the dust” is decidedly not an aphrodisiac. Yet maybe this awkward juxtaposition might help people of faith remember who we are and how much love and justice matter.

Not everyone realizes that the origin of Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with cupids or Hallmark; it marks a martyrdom. How sexy is that?! Indeed, historically roses symbolize not only romantic desire, but also blood and a passion larger than mere libido. For its part, Ash Wednesday kicks off the 40 day journey to Easter. For some, Lent means self-denial: sugar, coffee, alcohol, Amazon Prime. For others, it a guilt fest. Either way, unlike the “highs” of Christmas or Easter, Lent feels like a buzzkill.

But there are other ways to experience Lent and love. Lent calls Christians to make room for divine love and to reflect on how we might be changed by this radical love. And it invites us to turn our hearts toward the needs of those most vulnerable and disrespected. Lent reminds us that love is bitter and sweet. At some point or other, everyone witnesses the suffering and loss of that which we most cherish. Simply put, love costs.

This Lent, I am actively reflecting on the way my humanity—fragile, mortal, responsible—is bound up with climate change. As a parent, I feel guilt, knowing that my generation is passing on grave problems to children who will pay high prices for our failures and shortsightedness. Even as it may make us uneasy, let’s take stock of where we are:

Across the globe, average temperatures continue to rise alarmingly. 2017 witnessed unprecedented and wickedly-destructive weather events, from recording-setting hurricanes to ravaging West Coast wildfires to historic flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Such events are uprooting millions of people (including in the US)—destabilizing lives by threatening housing, employment, food, water, health, and basic security. Even more, those living on the front lines of climate change are disproportionately impoverished black and brown people who, ironically, have contributed much less to the problem than their white and/or more affluent counterparts. Climate change intensifies racial and socio-economic inequality and constitutes a looming public health crisis.

And all of this is happening as the US has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and as droves of credible scientists and policymakers are making like the Lorax and dejectedly lifting themselves out of their formally-beloved places of work like the EPA.

Happy Valentine’s Day!? I know—you never want to go on a date with me.

Yes, heavy stuff to ponder. Yet, maybe “going there” might enrich experiences of both Valentine’s Day and Lent. After all, love is gritty, not fluffy; it involves sacrifice and tenacity, especially when odds seem stacked against our most profound hopes.

As I grapple with all that seems off kilter right now, I find myself ruminating over a famous phrase from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, in a 1967 sermon critiquing the U.S. war in Vietnam, evocatively called us all to awaken to “the fierce urgency of now.” Isn’t such an impulse to “wake up” integral to the way many faith traditions mark time?

The practice of Lent asks us to take an internal moral and spiritual inventories, not only about individual faults, but about our collective ones as well for the myriad ways in which—by what we do or leave undone—we fail to love our neighbors, including creation, as ourselves. Put simply, rather than being a downer, Lent can act like smelling salts for our moral and spiritual sensibilities. It can be a way to help create new ways of individual and collective being in the world—new habits, new commitments, new priorities; renewed energy and conviction.

Traditionally, marking our bodies with ash is a way to show both mourning and repentance. Ashes remind us that we are mortal, that are lives are fleeting and so our choices—what we do/don’t do, how we focus or priorities and attention, the particular loves and aspirations to which we devote ourselves—all matter a great deal.

As part of my Lenten and love practices, I am doing a carbon footprint audit so that my family can make some changes. Also, I am supporting organizations like GreenFaith (an interfaith organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Catholic Climate Covenant. And I am contacting my elected officials and other government offices on a regular basis.

Whatever your relationship to a faith tradition, I invite you to join me in trying on some new habits. Try on a strategy for living a lower carbon life. Write and call your elected officials twice a week about pressing issues. Attempt thoughtful conversations with others about important issues—climate change, immigration, healthcare, racism.

Challenging suggestions, I realize. To embolden us to take a few risks, maybe ashes and roses are exactly what we need.

Aana Marie Vigen, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow https://www.theopedproject.org/

(This piece first appeared on Living Formations and is reposted on Voices with permission. Ashes of roses photographed by Ars Thanea creative studio)

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