When Valentine’s Day Meets Ash Wednesday (2024)

This year, Ash Wednesday, a Christian day of mourning, falls on February 14, Valentine’s Day. At first glance, these two days could not be more different: One is a lighthearted celebration of love and affection, the other a somber reminder of human mortality. But love and death are not strangers; they chase each other like childhood friends playing tag in the schoolyard. The coincidence of these two holidays occurring on the same day feels providential, reminding us that death lingers at the edge of the sweetest romances, waiting for its moment to spoil the fun.

As an Anglican priest and a husband, I have kept both days with my wife. Ash Wednesday begins the 40-day penitential season of Lent in the lead-up to Easter, and it includes a service where a priest marks each congregant’s forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross. I have led those services, standing before my wife and the assembled congregation, entreating them to gather at the altar. They stumble out of the pews, mothers and fathers wrestling unruly children, older folks moving slowly, teenagers acting annoyed at having been brought to church in the middle of the week. Couples and singles, the happily married and the struggling. Ash Wednesday plays no favorites. Everyone gets the same message.

I dip my finger into the small container, gather a bit of dust, and draw the cross on their forehead. Each imposition of ashes is accompanied with the refrain “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

I said these words to my wife for the first time in the early years of our marriage. It’s an odd thing to say to a new spouse, with my memories of how she looked in her wedding dress and the perfection of her hair still so fresh.

Elizabeth Bruenig: A prayer for less

The woman I loved was going to die one day. The love story that was unfolding between us—one that would grow to include children and miscarriages, joy and trauma—would know an ending because “in the midst of life we are in death.”

We celebrated our first Valentine’s Day our senior year of college, when my efforts were limited by my meager student budget. Even still I wanted to impress her, so I transformed my dorm suite’s decor, taking down posters of my favorite athletes, musicians, and luminaries from the past. In their place I hung, on large poster boards, a list of 10 things that I loved about her. My handwriting has always been a disaster, so I enlisted a female friend with excellent penmanship.

My future wife bore with my sentimentality that night, but in truth she’s a pragmatist who finds Valentine’s Day unnecessary. Over the years, our celebrations have become much less showy. A dinner and some chocolate usually suffice. I’ve come around to her way of seeing things. It is possible to be in love so long that extravagant gifts and gestures can no longer articulate the meaning of your story.

My wife and I have been married for nearly 20 years. We met in our early 20s and now find ourselves in our early 40s, with four kids, a dog, and a mortgage. We have lived through the summer of life until the early fall. If God is merciful, we hope to be together in the winter years, that cute old couple with dated clothes who sit on the porch and watch our grandchildren play.

Nonetheless, this story will have an ending. Humanity’s great enemy cannot be put off forever. Death will intrude into our narrative, taking one from the other. When we are at our frailest and most in need of companionship, death will separate lifelong friends. Then the depth of love will be revealed in the abyss of grief. Valentine’s Day will be swallowed up by Ash Wednesday.

What do we do with this reality? We remember that love is a wonder; in its first flush, it is intoxicating, and feels like it encompasses the world. But that feeling has always been something of a lie.

We must have meaning outside our romantic relationships. To expect them to provide all our purpose is too heavy a burden. My wife and I are a good case study in this, as we both have vocations that inspire us apart from marriage. I do not write because I love my wife. I write because words are unruly things that meander around the page. The thrill of wrestling beauty out of them, forcing them to obey my instructions, makes me happy. My wife is a pediatrician at a clinic whose patients are underinsured and underserved. She enjoys unraveling the puzzles of human illness, providing counsel to parents and children. She works in that particular clinic because she loves someone else and something else: God and medicine. She has a happiness and a calling that exist apart from me. I am a witness to them, but I did not create them.

Arthur C. Brooks: An old romantic custom we should bring back

Death reminds us of the limits of romantic love, but it also sets romantic love free. It allows love to take its place alongside other goods, some that last and others that are fleeting. Death brings a certain clarity. We can exercise and diet, use modern science to fix our bodies, but they will wear out. They will return to dust. Therefore, the joys we are given should be cherished, and the time we have not wasted.

Both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day present visions of the meaning of life. But Ash Wednesday offers the more radical hope. As it looks toward Jesus’s death and resurrection, it dares to suggest that there is a divine love not limited by mortality, and that although we are sprinting to our graves, we might one day rise from them and face an affection that defies description.

The hope of Ash Wednesday can almost feel too far-fetched, unsophisticated, a relic of premodern time. Ash Wednesday does not simply tell us that we might die. It suggests that through the power of God, death might not have the final word. It is bold enough to maintain that all our temporal affections are echoes and hints of a divine love that can bear the weight romantic love cannot.

In the Anglican tradition, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over any other holiday that occurs on that day, including Valentine’s Day. This isn’t some all-important decree; no priest is going to hunt through restaurants for lax believers who choose to have their candlelit meals anyway. And yet, I see wisdom in putting Ash Wednesday first. This year, my wife and I will delay our Valentine’s Day celebration a day or two. Then we will do what we do every year: share a dinner together pondering love and its limitations.

When Valentine’s Day Meets Ash Wednesday (2024)
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