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.