I once had a cat named Ollie. Consider him a “comfort service animal” as we say these days, who accompanied me through the years of my study at Aquinas Institute. He was a tuxedo cat, always elegantly attired, but actually quite easy-going, pursuing his comfort, just hanging out. For a cat his size, though, he had a rather limited voice range, just a high pitched “mew” which pertained largely to food and going out.
After Aquinas graduation, work brought us to Cleveland, and life in an apartment where the door to “out” was three flights down. A small “mew” uttered at the door would no longer suffice. So he developed a new voice, widened his range to dramatic melismas reaching from tenor to soprano, expanding his lungs and larynx to turn “Mew” into “Miai-owwww-wooow—aioooow.” And it served him well, bringing his person hurrying down the stairs.
A cat “will do/ as he do do/and there’s no doing anything about it,” T.S. Eliot observes in his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” True to his feline nature, Ollie saw life as a project of bending humans to his will. He knew his real name: Number One. If DNA could exist as a single spiral, it would be found in the genome of a cat.
Today is Valentine’s Day. And today is Ash Wednesday. The convergence of these two, the interaction of popular culture and liturgical observance, imagining gritty gray crosses and blooming red hearts together, suggests to me a different approach to Lent. To wit: Human DNA is a double helix, and there is always The Other. We are bonded to each other before our birth in mutual need. We grow up in the give and take of relationship and as Christians understand it, despite our differences, we are born and sustained by the immensity of God’s ever-creative love, and find mercy and salvation in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus. We are called and sent to love and be loved, living with the very real challenges of imaging Christ, the One For Others, our source of unity and peace. For God so loved the world. I AM became incarnate as I AM for OTHERS. Lent is a purposeful reinvestment in loving as he did.
In the Gospel passage today, Jesus is not establishing Lenten practice. We know that his companions did not fast and weren’t particularly observant Jews. His point was the attitude which underlies our relating to God and others, a warning about human temptations to the “selfies”–self-absorption, self-centeredness, self-enhancement, self-promotion, even self-discipline—all ways in which the most virtuous of human efforts can be subtly turned into All-About-Me.
As I contemplate today’s pairing of hearts and ashes, I see the romance brought up against the grit of loving. Most often, the practice of loving doesn’t come shaped like a valentine, or a purring kitty warm on one’s lap. It can be demanding, costly, confusing, unfulfilling, exhausting, and with no return guaranteed. The cross of ashes is written on the heart. Lent reminds us that underneath our first name, “ Beloved,” God has inscribed a second name, the same that Jesus bore, “I Am For Others.” Lent opens the heart and bears the cross.