I’m trying to blog every day during Lent, but have already failed. So, here’s my micro-homily from Ash Wednesday instead:
Ash Wednesday is, at a very basic level, the acknowledgement of our own mortality. Usually, this service is about the purgation of sin in preparation for death. But this year, we have the rare blessing that it falls on Valentine’s Day, the saccharine sweet celebration of love. Ash Wednesday is usually a maudlin affair, so it might seem incongruous to try to do both. But maybe by pairing love and death, we can see the depth of each one.
The pivotal moment of this service will be when I smudge some ashes on your faces and say, “From dust you have come; to dust you shall return.” This refrain comes from the second creation narrative in Genesis 3. It is supposed to be the end of the curse on the man because of his sin. But what if it’s not a curse? And what if it’s not because of sin?
Y’all might know that this is one of my favorite stories in all of Scripture. I think most people hate it, but it was redeemed for me when I read a rabbi’s interpretation of it, which focuses on love and desire.
The central issue is how we understand the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Marc Zvi Brettler, that rabbi I mentioned, suggests that a better reading might be “the Tree of Knowledge, for Better or Worse.” So, while Christians typically think of this as the tree that explains the difference between good and evil, Brettler argues that it grants knowledge about something in particular and that knowledge might be good for us or bad for us – maybe both.
The particular knowledge the tree imparts is sex. In the Hebrew, it is clear that this is one sexy tree. The woman desires it because it is a delight to the eyes. She lusts for the fruit of that tree. Though she and the man have been naked this whole time, when they eat of the fruit, their nakedness is suddenly an issue. When they leave the garden, we are told that Adam and Eve “know” one another, then baby makes three.
So when God issues this pronouncement, it is not necessarily a curse and doesn’t have anything to do with sin or disobedience. It’s about love and desire. If they know how to reproduce and they are drawn to one another to do so, they will have to die. God is describing the reality of being a mature human being and the story is about growing up and into that realization. Death, the ancients are saying, is necessary because we love.
It might also be said that love is necessary because we die. Even in a very superficial way, love is a salve for the wound of death. It takes our mind off of it, even if only for a moment. But love is stronger than that, as strong as death, in fact, as the Song of Songs reminds us: “For strong as death is love/fierce as Hell is passion./It burns like the fire of God./Many waters cannot put it out/nor rivers sweep it away.” When that final moment comes, love has the strength to overcome death, not by postponing it or getting rid of it – our fate is inescapable – but by giving it meaning. Our opening song asserts that “love is watching someone die.” If you’ve ever sat by someone’s side as they walk that Lonesome Valley, you know this is true. The Gospel of John reminds us that “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It seems that love is the greatest gift we can give in death and death is the greatest gift we can give in love.
So today as we acknowledge our death and celebrate our love, ask one another, “Will you be mine? I will be yours.” Remember to love strongly and fiercely, even into death.