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

 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 Valentines’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:



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.


Sept 2014 Color

Aana Marie Vigen, Ph.d. is an Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow. She is passionate about advocacy and education on global climate change and Christian moral agency. She is also passionate about her local congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA). And she loves teaching and living in Rogers Park with her spouse and son. Both this church and her family help her have–and enact–hope in the world. She focuses most of scholarly work on socio-economic and racial-ethnic inequalities in health and healthcare (in the U.S. and globally). She is also is interested in: the relation between ecological health and human health; ethnographic methods in Christian ethics; the intersection of Christian social ethics & bioethics; Protestant ethics; feminist ethics; white anti-racism. If you want to know what Aana has written, here are a couple of highlights: She is the author of Women, Ethics, and Inequality in U.S. Healthcare: “To Count among the Living”. In addition, she co-authored (with Christian Scharen) Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics and co-edited (with Patricia Beattie Jung) God, Science, Sex, Gender: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics.

3 Responses to “When Ashes & Roses Collide— This Valentine’s Day, Love Bigger”
  1. Julie Sevig says:

    Thanks for this, Aana! You inspire me in my Lenten discipline, but you ALWAYS inspire me to join you in activism. And I am grateful…

  2. Michelle Sevig says:

    I LOVE this article, and I’d go on a date with you any day. 🙂 Maybe a double date with our spouses. Thanks for encouraging me in my own Lenten discipline to “make room for divine love”

  3. Carol STeinbrecher says:

    Amazing interweaving of Lent and current socioeconomic issues. Let’s heed the suggestions during Lent and beyond.

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