Valentines and ashes, divine dance

This story appears in the Lent feature series. View the full series.

Not since 1945 has Valentines' Day and Ash Wednesday fallen on the same day. I found myself intrigued by this. First, I remembered from my childhood how eager I was to see how many valentines I would receive and from whom and the weighty decision as to whom I would ask, "Would you be my Valentine?"

Second, proudly walking around all day with this smudge of dirt on my forehead having piously acknowledged what the priest intoned: "Remember, man [sic], you are dust and to dust you shall return." Interesting that both of these days have a few things in common.

Both involve a marking of some sort — possession of valentine cards often in the shape of a heart and a smudge in the shape of a cross with ashes from burnt palms. Both signify a type of belonging and a willingness to be public about who you are and whom you love. And for Ash Wednesday a remembering of where you came from.

As I played with this juxtaposition of one cultural holiday and one liturgical moment, I wondered "How perfect to have the holiday that celebrates LOVE usher in the Lenten season, which also celebrates LOVE." How might this lens of LOVE assist our Lenten reflection?

We read in John's Gospel that "God so loved the world that God gave God's only son to save the world." That is often given as the reason for the presence of Jesus in our midst.

But what if there is more? "There is something more than just a rescue operation going on here;" writes Cynthia Bourgeault in The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. "The created world is infinitely precious and valuable in its own right."

This world is the Earth upon which we live and to which we return as our "dust to dust" mantra reminds us. We come from matter and this material world holds Divinity. Jesus didn't become less when he was born. Divinity didn't get diminished when incarnated into matter. Our binary way of thinking that one must be better than the other — divinity/humanity, spirit/matter — doesn't work here. We are being turned around. Invited to see things differently.

Paul guides us in this turning when, in Philippians 2:6-11, he prays: "Though his state was that of God, yet he did not claim equality with God something he should cling to. Rather, he emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness."

Although the preaching of this text often emphasizes humility and obedience, viewing it from a different perspective, it is saying that the way to God is not "up" in an ascending manner but more "down" in a descent.

Quoting Bourgeault again, "by entering the realm of form … descent seems to be the chief operative in making the fullness of the divine manifestation happen." The world we live in is holy, and matter was a most appropriate container for Divine Love.

Jesus emptied himself into life fully and lovingly. As the Scripture stories tell us, he looked at everyone as worthy of encounter, from the lepers exiled in caves to the prostituted women of his time. The sick, the maimed, the deaf and mute he called to be in relationship with him, to share the healing power of love, forgiveness and mercy. All those who chose to follow him were invited to see things differently. To wake up to what is really there.

Those in positions of power and privilege during Jesus' time felt threatened with Jesus' lifestyle. What would happen if everyone was seen as equal, worthy of respect and dignity from one another? What would happen if the high priests couldn't define which sacrifices, rules and laws were necessary to follow if people wanted to achieve a higher place in heaven? What if people believed Jesus' message that God lives within us all?

Lent reveals the answer. The power of Love is so great a force that if not stopped — put to death — it would transform the world. The systems, structures and consciousness that privilege the few over the many would be no more.

Jesus' act of self-emptying love ended in death. His entire life was an act of love — exchanging, giving and receiving. But it was not an isolated act, no matter how meaningless it may have appeared to those who stood at the foot of the cross. Jesus' life and death were connected to something greater.

The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century wisely understood the Trinity as an outpouring of love: from one person of the Trinity to the other. They described these mutual outpourings as kenosis. They understood it as a constant spilling over of love to one another. They named this complete in-and-out cycle of love perichoresis which literally means "the dance around."

Jesus' life of self-emptying love was part of this divine exchange, this divine dance. It is in the letting go that you experience divine love. Jesus commanded us to go and do likewise.

During Lent we re-awaken to the gift of love as embodied in the life of Jesus. It is our acts of compassion, mercy, self-emptying love that not only transform our behavior but our very being, and so too, the world. And that transformation is what threatens those in power.

Bourgeault expresses it best as she writes in The Wisdom Jesus: "something is catalyzed out of that self-emptying which is pure divine substance mirrored in our own true face. Subtle qualities of divine love essential to the well-being of this planet are released through our actions and flow out into the world as miracle, healing and hope."

This year when you hear, "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return," celebrate that you-we are part of Earth, matter through which Divinity manifests itself. As you are marked with the sign of the cross, remember that you-we are human beings who are invited to join the divine dance of outpouring love here on this Earth.

When you send or receive Valentine Day cards this year, reflect on how it is an invitation to be part of this divine exchange, offering and receiving the gift of self-emptying love.

During Lent, stay connected with the beauty of matter in all its manifestations especially your heart and our Earth. Follow Jesus' story through his incredible outpouring of love. Perhaps on Easter you may realize that there is an ever-present Valentine waiting for you. The question deep within your heart is simply, "Will you be a partner in the Divine dance of Love?"

[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was national coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.