Today, on Valentine’s Day, while the world is bedecked with schmaltzy red and pink hearts, I will stand before kneeling members of my congregation and tell them that they are going to die. This, without a doubt, is among the most punk rock things I have ever done.
For the first time in 45 years, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, a liturgical feast day commemorating not one but two martyrdoms. The holiday—in old English, hāligdæg, or “holy day”—has been scrubbed of its bloody beginnings and now finds its chief significance in market share and revenue generation. (Houston Asset Management tracked 2017’s Valentine sales as just over $18 billion in their yearly “Cost of Loving” index.)
With its declaration of human finitude and mortality, Ash Wednesday is always counter-cultural, but when it falls on the very day that chalky candy hearts proclaim “Be Mine,” “Wink Wink,” and (my favorite) “U R A 10,” the contrast is particularly stark.
Though I generally never turn down any excuse to eat chocolate, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the way we Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, with its trite mushiness and overcrowded restaurants (not to mention the inevitable pro- and anti-Valentine’s Day hot takes). So there’s a goth little rebel in me that relishes the opportunity to preside over such a radically alternative event. As a priest, I’ll remind my congregation that however much we ignore the human condition, we are, in fact, dust and to dust we shall return (Ecc. 3:20).
Themes of love and death are entwined chronologically in this “Ash Valentine’s Day,” and they’re deeply connected in the story of Christianity, as well—particularly in the person of Jesus.
The church is not a morbidity-obsessed death cult that wants to extinguish the warm glow of romantic love, but we reject the idea that what really makes a life complete is finding an erotic partner. We also reject the sentimental idea that anyone could really love another without it costing something—and something far more than the “Cost of Loving” index could ever track. The true contrast on display in this year’s “Ash Valentine’s Day” is not the contrast between erotic love and agape love—because Christians can and do celebrate both—but instead the contrast of what I’ll call sentimental love and sacrificial love.
Stanley Hauerwas famously said, “The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” In his view, there’s no deeper sentimentality than the presumption that we (or our children) can hold convictions without suffering for them. To have true convictions is to love something bigger than the self, and we cannot love God or others without suffering. The true roots of Valentine’s Day remind us that holding to our convictions might mean suffering unto death.
Besides the more dramatic example of martyrdom, there is, of course, the plain fact that all loving relationships will end in death. My mother will spend this Valentine’s Day mourning the recent loss of my dad, her husband of nearly 50 years. Is her grief worth every minute they had together? Surely it is. And yet, the actual reality of losing a loved one is a messy and dark business. Even in the best of love stories, death leaves us in deep grief.
Though we all know that our loved ones will die someday, what is often harder to admit is that loving someone will also involve a painful death to self—certainly a death to sentimentality—long before we reach the grave.
In John 15, Jesus said that the greatest form of love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Strikingly, he holds up the highest ideal of love as friendship, not erotic love. And, perhaps more shockingly, the highest form of love is not “happily ever after,” but love that results in suffering and death for your friends.
I have a number of very close friends who are celibate, which inevitably entails some degree of loneliness, grief, and suffering. They have chosen to forestall some happiness, in the short-term at least. The false promise of Valentine’s Day—that life begins and ends with finding your romantic “soulmate” —is radically rejected by my friends’ decision to embrace celibacy. And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and solitary sadness for them, because their choice is born of love and conviction, and though there are days of very real sorrow and pain, they also experience profound joy. Through both suffering and joy, my friends witness to the wonder and glory of friendship with God and also to the friendship and love of a community.
Many married couples, too, if they’re honest, will confess that they have also faced long stretches of catastrophic loneliness—times when they sat on a marriage counselor’s couch, white-knuckling their wedding vows, times when divorce seemed the happiest of all bad options—and yet they remained in the marriage. If marital love is to last, it will inevitably require the couple to lay down their lives for each other.
Jesus goes on to say, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15). Amidst the howling loneliness found both in marriage and celibacy, we face a kind of death born of obedience. Married and celibate Christians face different types of loneliness, yet they somehow match one another. Each calling lends its own joys, and each calling demands suffering. Each reveals the hope and redemption of the God of love, and each will require us to cling to him for dear life.
This Ash Wednesday, we remember again that we are sinners and that our sin brought suffering and death into the world. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are called to “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.” We are also called to remember “our mortal nature”: You and I are going to die. We don’t remember this to be goth or depressing; we remember it because it anchors us in the truth of our human condition. And it anchors us in the greater reality of resurrected love.
We smudge crosses of ash on our foreheads as a way to remember death, but also to recall that God has graciously given us eternal life through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who laid down his life for his friends.
As Christians, we are not reveling in death while the culture around us embraces love and laughter. On the contrary, we, too, are celebrating love—a love more substantial and costly than we can imagine, a love that’s unsentimental yet endlessly passionate, a love that defeated sin and death, that woos us, forgives us, and calls us both his friends and his bride.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and currently serves as co-associate rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life(IVP). She and her husband, Jonathan, have two young daughters. Read more at tishharrisonwarren.com or follow her on Twitter.
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