Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Death and Ashes, Fire and Love

It seems almost a cruel trick for Ash Wednesday to fall on St. Valentine’s Day. One is the remembrance of our mortality, the other of love. The imposition of ashes on our forehead speaks of our inescapable death — dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But the mark we are given on this day is cross-shaped, and points to what is stronger than death. The ashes are traced in the Sign of the Cross, for it is in the Cross of Christ that we encounter Love, poured out for our sake. It is finally what the Incarnation is about, for in it we see what it means to be God, and what it means to be human. It is to love without limit and without end — Self-Giving, Other-Centered, Cross-Shaped Love.

This Love is stronger than death. For it has gone through death and come out the other side, “trampling down death by death,” as the Orthodox like to sing, and bestowing Life. And just as death cannot finally be resisted, and we all must die, even so, Love, which is stronger than death, cannot finally be resisted. For we are created by God, who is Love, to be like God, and so to be like Love. It is inherent to what it means to be human.

But, of course, St. Valentine himself understood this very well, who gave his life for the sake of Love.

The perfect Scripture for this day, to me at least, is from Song of Solomon, which I follow up with a couple of quotes about it from the early Church:

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.” (Song of Solomon 8:6 ESV)

“When death comes, it cannot be resisted. By whatever arts, whatever medicines, you meet it; the violence of death can none avoid who is born mortal; so against the violence of love can the world do nothing. For from the contrary the similitude is made of death; for as death is most violent to take away, so love is most violent to save. Through love many have died to the world, to live to God.” — St. Augustine of Hippo, Explanations of the Psalms 48.12

“Let the love of God be stronger than death in you. If death releases you from the desire for everything, how much more appropriate is it that the love of God should release you from the desire for everything.” — John of Apamea, Letter 45, To Hesychius.

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