Few of us would consider the contemplation of our mortality as a part of a romantic evening with our significant other. Indeed, talk of dustiness, ashes, and the silent contemplation of our own brokenness is the antithesis of the language of love and desire. Yet, for the first time in 73 years, the eccentricities of the calendar have created the confluence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. It leaves us feeling torn between the obligation to express romantic love to our beloved with pink hearts, red roses, and frilly cards; and the obligation to set aside time to reflect on our own brokenness and on our complete dependency on God.
To be honest, the combination seems like a recipe for disaster with the choice between a guilt-ridden candlelit dinner or a resentment filled evening of worship, with the silences punctuated by fantasies of what you would rather be doing.
But the celebrations of these two days are not mutually exclusive. We do not have to choose between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Indeed, the marking of both these holidays on February 14 is a rare opportunity that reveals deeper truths about each, truths that are so often overlooked in our observances.
Our approach to Ash Wednesday is so often on our own mortality, on our inability to do what is good and right, and our complete dependence on God’s mercy. It is an observance we associate with solemnity and penance, the start of a season of deep self-examination and acts of self-denial. This is all true and important, and it would be a mistake to think that Ash Wednesday is not about these things. AND, the confluence of Valentine’s Day this year reminds us that underneath the somber observance of Ash Wednesday is God’s profound and undeserved love for us.
At the same time, Valentine’s Day is nowadays a largely secular celebration of erotic love. While this type of love is a part of the human experience and an important component of any relationship, it is by definition, fleeting. We speak of feeling the “moment,” we talk of sparks flying, and we work to create the right atmosphere that Eros might work its charm. Erotic love does not persist, it comes and goes, a capricious element in our lives together; we do not expect to live in constant erotic love for our beloved.
The juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday reminds us of a deeper sort of love, an enduring love that rides the heights and depths of relationship, a love that endures. On a day so often filled with roses, chocolates, and pink hearts, Ash Wednesday re-frames our love for one another in our own mortality and invites us to perceive our beloved anew. Not as the idealized figure of erotic love, but as the imperfect and mortal object of God’s divine agape love, the person with whom we will walk the journey of life, until we at last return to the dust.