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We’re now a week into Lent. But I’m still thinking on last week’s confluence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. I’ll admit I found all the inevitable jokes and memes pretty witty, but I also have been struck by this wondrous highlighting of the interconnectedness of death and love, grief and connection. Of course, we know intellectually of our finitude in body and in affection, even as we know of the infinity of both soul and divine love. And so, if we think about the co-existence of fast day and feast day together, we get a glimpse into the greater truth of the season: our many, many limitations set within a love that will not let us go.

Maybe it’s because I’m also teaching my beloved Dante again this semester–in preparation for a May trip to Italy with Calvin students. As one of those students pointed out this week as we were concluding Inferno, it is particularly meaningful in Lent to travel with Dante, who begins his own journey in the poem on Good Friday. It’s a journey where Dante begins fearful and unsure of his identity–and again and again, God comes after him, God makes the way through–even in the depths of hell. Nothing can stop the journey that has been ordained for the pilgrim, even when the pilgrim himself falters. In other words, it does not depend on his own love for God. Instead, Dante witnesses sin’s consequences–which for Dante, following Augustine, meant the way that loves are deformed. And really, one way to work through the entire Divine Comedy is to see it as the quest to come to term with God’s justice and God’s love, even while acknowledging that that understanding takes the entire journey of our lives.

On Ash Wednesday, the liturgy has most traditionally highlighted this justice–we are never not mortal (“you are dust”), and our dusty spiritual condition is sin, the “wages” of which, Romans tells us is to return to that dust again.

At my church’s Ash Wednesday service–the first time I have gone, as far as I can remember–something a little different happened. I had been asked to be a liturgist (something I do pretty frequently, though never for this service), but then, when I arrived, I was also asked if I would like to help impose the ashes (since I am also an elder). I’m not typically a tentative person, but I wasn’t quite sure–I was happy to hold the little bowl of ashes to assist my minister, but it felt too important somehow, an outsized responsibility to do it myself.

When I demurred, my minister Jon was hugely encouraging, excitedly talking to me and the other liturgist about the incredible opportunity to serve our congregation, about the theological importance of this act, about the way it bound us together as brothers and sisters. He was insistent that it was absolutely something in which lay people should participate.

Then he described our church’s words at the imposition–“You are dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ,” stressing, “It’s really important that it is and, not but.” That really got me. We name the totality of our brokenness and the love that already has us. Fast and feast, finitude and infinity.

And so, I joined Jon, taking my turn alongside him and dipping my thumb again and again into the tiny, dark bowl. I wasn’t wrong in my initial sense of the magnitude of it all–it is an act that, as it is supposed to, takes our vague abstractions and concretizes them into actual men, women, and children. I have written elsewhere of how serving communion has a powerful emotional effect on me, but I found the physicality of this ritual–looking each person in the eye as I touched their foreheads, made the cross, and proclaimed those profound words–incredibly moving.

Indeed, it seemed only right on this combination holiday that I felt overwhelmed by deep love for my fellow dusty congregants and (because it’s important that it’s an and not a but) for the God in Christ who makes us alive, each and every one.

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • RZ says:

    “You are dead in sin AND (already) alive to God in Christ.”
    I wonder how often ww truly wrestle with that?
    My observation is that we somewhat mindlessly assume that 90% of the reason Jesus came was to die and 10% of his purpose was to live. Similarly, we really do not get to “live” until we “die.” As I get older and see what that paradigm does to create a frozen chosen-ness, I find myself focusing on a messianic mission that was 90% focused on teaching us how to live. I will never argue over percentages or any formula that describes God’s absolution mindset, but I do find it a useful exercise for analyzing Christ’s mission and our own. Thank you, Jennifer, for this prompt.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Jennifer. I wish I could have read this before I took part in the imposition of the ashes. Your reflections focused more deeply and articulately what I was trying to express in a couple of hasty conversations with co-officiants. Maybe use this again next year, though Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday won’t mesh then? Thanks again.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for illuminating the dance of and … AND but. And, for your love of teaching & learning as being so nourishing. And, for writing your book. As a Calvin alum, my heart pounds with happiness that you teach there. As well as on the page. Thanks for your thumbprint of ashes, felt on my forehead this morning.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for taking us deeper into the rich experience and meaning of the Ash Wednesday service. May it linger and bless throughout our journey of Lent, and beyond.

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