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Flower heart (photo: Wiki­media Commons)

It was an act of love.

While cleaning the sanc­tuary in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church on Broad Street a few days ago, an altar boy decided he might test run his Ash Wednesday sermon.

Although the church was nearly empty — and the first day of Lent would not arrive for another two weeks — he did not mind. Practice makes perfect. Finding an urn on a bare table in front of the altar, he ascended the pulpit and preached some­thing in the genre of “Remember man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But the urn turned out to be more than just a memento mori. Shortly after the altar boy returned his prop to its table, a funeral com­menced. If this had been a Flannery O’Connor novel, maybe the priest would have marked the fore­heads of the living with the ashes of the deceased.

Of course, in a few days, the priest will mark the fore­heads of the living with ashes (from incin­erated palm branches, thank God). The faithful will receive the sign of their mor­tality and remember that only Christ’s death on the cross saves them from Adam’s curse.

It’s a beau­tiful way to begin the most pon­derous season of the litur­gical year. Ash Wednesday’s reminder of death is actually a promise of life; through our suf­fering alongside Christ during Lent, he redeems all time — binding us into eternity with his death and res­ur­rection.

But this year, a touch of the grotesque will smudge the occasion. Ash Wednesday shares Feb. 14 with Valentine’s Day, a holiday des­ig­nated for cupidity. Simul­ta­ne­ously self-indulgent and self-loathing, it’s a synec­doche for lust itself. The best Valentine’s Days restrain them­selves to a brief sojourn in the CVS chocolate aisle and a blessedly short drink at Clyde’s on M Street. The worst ones involve com­munal viewings of “500 Days of Summer.”

Couple that with Ash Wednesday and things get weird. It seems like we have to choose. So, when Christ’s self-gift and Godiva’s Feb­ruary imma­nence duke it out for the dom­i­nance over the day, which one do we pick?

I fear I will try to pick both. There’s always a way to serve two masters, if you’re willing to par­tition your loves.

I’m going to buy my girl­friend Hannah a box of choco­lates and staple to the label a Ziplock bag of ashes swiped from the Her­itage Room fire­place. For her part, Hannah has told me she’s going to make me a card:

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY.

From: Dust U. Are

To: Dust U. Shall-Return

I’ve heard reports of other couples planning to cel­e­brate with fasting feasts or mor­ti­fi­cation-inscribed Sweet­hearts or even Sta­tions of the Cross-themed chocolate cal­endars. Some soulful con­trarian will probably play “I Love You, Hon­eybear,” as he drives (alone) to the church.

It’s easy to ironize the con­ver­gence of the two hol­idays. After all, sug­gesting that we can die to our­selves and par­tic­ipate in a sig­nif­icant cul­tural, reli­gious, and com­mercial cel­e­bration of romance at the same time seems laughable, a showcase of the incon­sis­tencies and inad­e­quacies of human desire.

But that’s what it is. And that’s good. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday con­tex­tu­alize each other, reminding us that, to subsist, the love romance ignites between two people must die to its selfish desires, so it can burn more strongly for Christ.

Or at least that’s what the altar boy says.

Nic Rowan is a junior studying history.