That Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide this year sounds almost like a bad joke. It will no doubt inspire more than a few. “I guess the love drive and the death drive really are the same,” the ghost of Sigmund Freud proclaims, smoking a cigar and driving a red convertible a little too fast into a dark tunnel.
Nonetheless, it’s happening, and it’s too delightful a convergence just to leave alone. So how to talk about this without being cranky—or, worse, precious.
Valentine’s Day alone already inspires crankiness enough. People who are single view it as an insult from the universe, people who are coupled as an imposition, and like any ritual where you’re supposed to demonstrate love, it presents numerous opportunities for humiliating failure. At this point the Valentine’s ritual I see people observing most often is taking to Facebook to denounce commercialized love, followed by people who want you to know something about the real St. Valentine.
Such proclamations aren’t wrong. Valentine’s Day, as popularly observed, really doesn’t do its saint much honor. On the other hand, though I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day with a person I loved, I happen to like it—precisely because it’s a little tacky and embarrassing. What’s more human than having to take one of your deepest feelings and finding nothing at hand but a bunch of flowers, a silly card, and food? It’s not as if we approach funerals with any better tools.
And yes, it’s funny to go into a restaurant to celebrate your own unique and irreplaceable relationship with a fixed-price menu that everyone else in the restaurant is also eating. But maybe that’s the point. The love we feel for each other is intensely private and nigh-inexpressible, but at the same time, by its nature, demands to be publicly expressed. Hence, among other things, marriage itself.
Lo and behold, Ash Wednesday is also an occasion for public expression, and so at first glance, we have found the connection between the two occasions that we were looking for. Doesn’t our remorse cry to be publicly expressed as well? Isn’t our mortality inescapably public? Perhaps the ashes are the roses we bring to God, or something along those lines. Not what we’d like to bring, but what we can.