This morning we awoke to a strange confluence. It is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. One day which is devoted to repentance and remembering our death, the other, at least in its post-Hallmark-guise, revels in romance. I was raised in a branch of Christianity where Lent was an optional add-on, and you weren’t expected to give anything up in the weeks leading up to Easter. But the strangeness of an Ash Wednesday Valentine’s Day makes me almost certain that this will not be a bumper year for chocolate makers and confectionaries. Though honestly, love will win out and you are probably already too late to get your reservation at that fancy restaurant.
The verse that hangs over most of our Ash Wednesday observances is Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” In the service for the Imposition of Ashes, we sometimes substitute the word “ash” for the “dust.” Neither dust nor ash has much substance and both metaphorically get at the ephemeral quality of our time on earth, but ashes evoke also the repentant image of ‘sackcloth and ashes.’
Given our Valentine’s Day theme for this year’s Ash Wednesday party, my mind keeps thinking of this passage from the Song of Songs:
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
all the wealth of one’s house for love,
it[c] would be utterly scorned. (Song of Songs 8:6-7, Emphasis mine)
The Song of Songs is a series of romantic love poems in the Hebrew Bible. Once upon a time, theologians and Bible interpreters allegorized these Songs, making them all about our relationship with God. Sometimes their interpretations were fanciful. More recent commentators, on the other hand, read these as wholly about the love between a man and a woman (or women) and see very little here to do with God. There are several modern commentaries that will make you blush with how vividly they explore the sexual imagery (e.g. Marvin Pope’s commentary in the Anchor Bible series). The truth is somewhere in the middle. These are romantic poems, and romance reveals something of God to us.
It is the confluence of love and death that brings this passage to mind. The poet describes ‘a love as strong as death.’ Of the two, death, harsh as it may be, seems much more real. It has been called the great equalizer. Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” and certainly it is true that everyone dies. From dust we came, to dust we shall return.
In the Ancient Near East context of the Hebrew Bible, they wrestled with the reality. Death was the enemy. Iain Provan observes:
Death, as the book of Ecclesiastes, so powerfully reminds us, overshadows all of life. It is a mighty power, as the ancient Near East already understood when they characterized Death as a hungry diety, dragging all life down into a deep pit from which there is no escape—the world of the dead, from which there is no escape. (NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs, 372).
And it is true. None of us get out of this life alive. John Donne’s haunting phrase comes to mind, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The Hebrew poets and prophets were more honest about the reality of death than we generally are (as are, our modern poets and prophets). We tend to avoid thinking about death until Death within his bending sickle compass come and its reality is no longer avoidable.
Love as strong as death sounds nice but it feels unbelievable. Everybody dies. But too often we see our love thwarted, unrequited, frustrated, and broken. If love is as strong as death then why do we feel so alone?
Provan writes, reflecting on this passage, “Death comes to all. Yet love, we are told, is its equal, and the passion that the lovers share is as stubborn and unrelenting as the underworld (Sheol, NIV, “grave”), which pursues all living things to swallow them up” (368-369). The experience of being in love steels us against the dying of the light.
But more than that. Love undergirds reality. At the center of creation is the Triune God—a community of Self-giving Love that loved the world into Being, and though not all is right with it, loves the world still. God is love, and the God of love, loves us all. Everybody dies but nobody gets out of this life unloved.
St. Augustine paints love as fury and fire, bringing us away from certain destruction to the wide way of salvation:
No deluge of this age, no torrents of temptation extinguish the fires of love. Concerning it, Scripture says, Love is as strong as death. For just as, when it comes, death cannot be resisted — with whatever arts, whatever medications you may greet it — and those who are born as mortals cannot evade the fury of death; so too the world can do nothing against the fury of love. On the contrary, death is set before us as a likeness of love. For just as death achieves heights of fury in the work of destruction, so love achieves heights of fury in the work of salvation. (The Song of Song’s interpreted by Early and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, location 5473).
This is the ground we all stand on. If the reality was just we are all going to die I’d have no desire to press into God in this season, or any other. When a pastor marks us with ash, whether with a substantial smear or a wispy trace, they will make the sign of the cross on our foreheads. The cross was God’s chosen method to make visible his love for us all. O Death, where is your victory? O Death where is your sting?
Love is not as strong as death. It is stronger. May we know with greater certainty God’s love for us!