Love and Lent

By Shannon Vowell

A strange day today.

Much of the Christian world will begin a season of fasting and prayer by receiving ashes and the somber injunction to “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Simultaneously, much of the secular world will exchange over-priced roses, cards, and literally tons of chocolate in ritual celebration of “romantic love.”

(Some of the secular world will watch and wonder whether they will ever be on the receiving end of such love / such stuff; according to the culture, it’s the only route to Real Happiness.)

What to make of these apparent contradictions?

Acknowledging that romantic love has dominated human imagination since humans began recording their imaginings provides context, as does perceiving that the whole-body / whole-mind intensity of romantic love has compelled comparisons to death from time immemorial.

Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – romantic love powers the centripetal force for their writings. Love sends ancient nations to war, sends a medieval pilgrim through Hell and back again, sends young lovers of Verona to their voluntary deaths. Romantic love is the consuming passion – the irresistible force – the flame that even death cannot extinguish.

Modern Valentine’s Day conventions constitute a kitsch continuation of such assumptions. Hallmark may not have Homer on their writing staff, but the end goal remains the same: how to describe an emotion so vast that it could “launch a thousand ships” on behalf of the beloved?

There is a sense in which Ash Wednesday provides the only possible lens through which Valentine’s Day makes sense. Human longing for love that overwhelms, dazzles, and delights even beyond the grave appears sadly futile on its own. Seen from the vantage point of creatures crafted from dust by a Creator whose love literally spans eternity, the fundamental logic of that longing emerges. We are made in the image of the One Who loves us first – the One whose love literally gives us life and the capacity for love, ourselves.

Human nature, imago dei, derives from love and inclines toward love.

In the absence of knowing the One whose love makes us lovers, romantic love offers the only outlet option for emotions too strong to constrain. We were made for love; we will love, inevitably. We will pretend that the unkeepable purple prose promises of Hallmark (and Homer – and Dante – and Shakespeare) satisfy, because we cannot deny the craving for love that animates us.

Ash Wednesday reminds us: there IS a love that is stronger than death, and there IS a Lover who has conquered death on our behalf. Whether we are on the receiving end of roses on Valentine’s Day or not makes no difference to the passion that sent Jesus to the Cross on our behalf. We are loved. We are loved for this lifetime, and we are loved for the lifetime to come.

​​​​​​​Chocolates, roses, and cards convey sentiments which, at their best, reflect the true love that begat the universe. At their worst, they distract from the fact that only God can keep a promise to love beyond the grave. Ash Wednesday points us to that promise by reintroducing us to the Promise Keeper, in all his glorious affection and power.

Shannon Vowell, a frequent contributor to Good News, blogs at She is the author of Beginning … Again: Discovering and Delighting in God’s Plan for your Future, available on Amazon. Photo: Shutterstock.


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