Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day, Ash Wednesday, and the Lover-God

Happy Valentine's Day, all! I hope you're reading this with a glass of wine in hand and a box of chocolates within arm's reach...

Image via Stewart on Flickr
...unless you gave up chocolate for Lent. In which case you may be cursing the calendar that placed Valentine's Day right after Ash Wednesday this year.

The juxtaposition of these two days has got me thinking about the the tension I find in "celebrating" this season of penitence: the tension between sin and grace. Though Lent has only just started, already I've had countless conversations in person and online that reveal this tension. What are you doing for your Lenten discipline? Are you giving something up or taking something on? Are you choosing a discipline of asceticism and self-sacrifice, or whimsy and creativity, or compassion and service?

Valentine's Day certainly seems to push back against the self-sacrificial side of Lent. Today is a day about love, to be sure, but it's also a day about indulgence. Just think of the images surrounding this holiday: kids bringing home boxes full of Valentine cards and candy, lovers surprising their beloved with roses or chocolate or a fancy dinner. A stark contrast to yesterday's Ash Wednesday tradition, where many of us smudged our foreheads with dust and remembered our own mortality.

I have to admit, I like Ash Wednesday. I like the idea of original sin. And by "like" I mean "experience." I am a person made of dust, a finite creature who tries to do right but more often than not gets tripped up by laziness or fear or social structures. That's one of the most valuable insights I've learned from the Lutheran tradition: every time I show up to a Lutheran service and join the community in confessing "that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves," I feel the ring of truth in it. Just as I feel the ring of truth in Ash Wednesday's proclamation: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." 

On the flip side, this emphasis on sin and self-denial can go too far. For instance, Amy Laura Hall points out in this article from a couple of Lents ago, that many women are already encouraged to deny themselves. They already internalize enough of a message of their own inadequacy. Eating chocolate, rather than giving it up, could be a reminder of God's overflowing grace: 
As a Lenten practice, in order to habituate toward the mean of temperance, some women, and perhaps some men too, might need to eat exactly what they fear, but should love, in order to open themselves to God’s blessing in their student kitchenettes.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian
Part of finding the balance between God's grace and our nature might be to remember that being dust isn't such a bad thing. My friend Beth points out that from a scientific perspective, we're made of stardust - the stuff that makes up suns and galaxies. We may be flawed and finite, but we have also been created with ultimate beauty and potential. 

I find another token of hope in the work of Sallie McFague (which I'm reading for a theology class right now, and it's blowing my mind just as much as it did three years ago). McFague looks for new metaphors that can represent God's relationship with the world. And one of those metaphors is the lover, the one who loves not in spite of but because of who the beloved is.
Lovers love each other for no reason or beyond all reasons; they find each other valuable just because the other person is who he or she is. Being found valuable in this way is the most complete affirmation possible. It says, I love you just because you are you, I delight in your presence, you are precious beyond all saying to me. In the eyes of the beloved, one sees a different image of oneself: one sees a valuable person. Perhaps for the first time in one's life one realizes that one might be lovable: to see with the lover's vision is to see oneself as lovable.
If God loves us as deeply and as truly as a lover does - ashes and all - maybe that love can help us see our own potential, our own beauty.

So this Valentine's Day, and this Lent - however you plan to celebrate - may you know God's love that sees you as you are, and loves the dust in you.


No comments: