Paper hearts attached to a string by paperclips

Valentine’s Day in Ashes

Last Wednesday was Valentine’s Day. For some, that was a very good thing: flowers and chocolate and an expensive meal and rose-petalled sex. For others, it was a stupid — and painful — reminder that they’re single, unable to hook a partner. 

It turns out that Ash Wednesday was the same day. Most non-Catholics wouldn’t register the overlap, but to me — a cradle Catholic who still harbors Catholic tendencies — it gave me a chuckle. Let’s celebrate romantic love on the same day we celebrate our inevitable return to ashes. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the priest says during Ash Wednesday services, marking the sign of the cross on your forehead in dusty black. 

The juxtaposition is funny, but it’s also not very funny at all. Ash Wednesday, for those who aren’t aware, marks the beginning of Lent — 40 days of sacrifice that lead to Easter Sunday. The day itself is a reminder of our impermanence. We’re born into this world a while, we do a few things — if we’re lucky, a few good things that make our world brighter — and then we’re done. Buried or burned. Memories keeping us alive. 

Isn’t it the same with love? Love comes and goes — when we least expect it, oftentimes. And it hurts, and gives us a joy and purpose, and too often disappears or fades away. Then we start the cycle all over again. 

Life and love. We don’t control either one. And yet, they are at the core of who we are and why we do what we do — whatever that may be.


To me, the big difference between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is that the latter doesn’t remind us love is fleeting. It tells a different story altogether: Love is glorious, uplifting, enduring. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, foreshadows death, knowing that resurrection and new life are on the other side. We live, we die, then we live again — into perpetuity. Isn’t in the same with love? We love, we lose love, then we love and are loved into perpetuity. That should be the parallel, no? But it isn’t. Instead, there is no downside to the journey of love as we celebrate it on February 14. It’s roses and chocolate and candy canes from here to the sunrise.

I guess my point is, let’s not pretend permanence of something that isn’t permanent. Life comes and goes, as does love. Let’s acknowledge that, not messaging Valentine’s Day as a “love forever, through all ills” kind of celebration, but an “embrace love as it comes to you and take stock of how it enriches your life when it’s around” kind of celebration.

I’m not saying we should treat Valentine’s Day as somberly as we treat Ash Wednesday. Just with a little more balance. Death is our inevitable reality, as is the loss of love. But the eventuality is life — and love — again. That’s why I try not to wipe off that pesky ashen cross. It’s why Lent meant so much. Forty days to think hard about what life means: What we need and what we don’t, what we give and what we take. What we take for granted. It made Easter a more powerful, fulfilling holiday. 

But Valentine’s Day? Seems like an obligation at worst, and at its saccharine best, a reaffirmation of a falsehood: Love always. 

No, I’m afraid not. Some wallowed in painful un-love this past year. Let’s honor that as part of the life journey, and knowing how much it tears us a part to lack love, let’s double-down on giving it. For who would ever want to go long without love? Who would we ever want to go without life?

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