This Valentine’s Day, remember, you are dust. You will die.
As odd as that exhortation may seem, it’s entirely appropriate. Today is not only Valentine’s Day, but also Ash Wednesday, a day when Christians begin the penitential and contemplative season of Lent. And the truth is, this admixture of romantic love and remembrance of human frailty, Eros and Thanatos, is good and proper. There’s nothing quite like a memento mori to set the mood on Valentine’s Day: “Hey baby, ashes to ashes; wanna light a fire?” (I’m great at pillow talk, as you can tell.)
Jesting aside, Americans could use a little help in bed. Even controlling for marital status, we as a country are having less sex. We are waiting longer and longer to get married. And when we do get married, we are having far fewer kids. The cycle of life, love, and death just isn’t what it used to me. Apparently, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective.” Youch, Qoheleth.
But this joint holiday serves to remind us of the strange beauty of the despairing-yet-hopeful life of man. We are thrown into a world beyond our understanding, where, properly speaking, again as the ever-cheerful Teacher puts it, “All is vanity, like chasing after the wind.” As Soren Kierkegaard sums it up in The Sickness Unto Death, the whole moral existence of man is about this one question: how shall our souls relate to the Infinite, and how long shall we despair in an imperfect relation? We go from screaming poopmakers in infancy, to a flash of apparent self-sufficiency as adults, and then shrink back into diapers, and often into cognitive decay, sometimes long before death. The deep well of pain that defines human existence has caused some pessimistic philosophers, contrary to the old Classical maxim, to suggest that non-existence is preferable to existence. To date, few of these pessimists have practiced what they preach.
On Ash Wednesday, for a moment, we allow ourselves to see the abyss with clear eyes: this is what life is. Dust, and ash. For tomorrow, you will die.
But a moment later, most Christians at an Ash Wednesday receive a kind of ash transformed: the ash is used to mark the sign of St. Valentine on our forehead, that is, to mark the sign of all the saints, the sign of the cross. We are reminded that Qoheleth’s “chasing after the wind” didn’t end in hot air: but in the fear of the Lord. We recall that Kierkegaard’s despair is the very bondage of the will from which grace may lift us up. The sign of death, ash and the cross, becomes a sign of life overcoming death.
And so we arrive at Valentine’s Day. We don’t know much about the historic St. Valentinus. But the accounts agree on a few things. He was a priest who refused to stop evangelizing, even when it was illegal. He was hauled before Emperor Claudius Gothicus, refused to recant his faith, was imprisoned, and finally executed. His body is wormfood.
But so is the body of Claudius Gothicus. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: and while Gothicus is forgotten by everybody besides Mike Duncan, St. Valentine is remembered. And not just remembered: his spiritual patrimony fill the earth! The sign of the cross goes on. And if the legends are right, then St. Valentine’s ultimate crime may have been as simple as helping Christians get married. Americans today could use some help; they could use a new Valentinus.
And we could stand to remember that the holidays today aren’t just about chocolates and a church service: they are about what it means to be human, of our thrownness into this world, and of the meaning in it that exists just beyond the border of our comprehension. Yes, we are very precocious primates governed by preverbal passions and urges, and Valentine’s Day for many has become the pretext for concupiscence. But we, and this holiday, are so much more. We are souls with creative power; we can bring new life into the world, truly new beings, new flames set alight in the instant of conception. Our lives do not end in despair, in vanity, in the thrownness of the world: that is where they begin, the ebbing of the tide from which meaning wells up. And while often painful or seeming empty in the time being, they become meaningful through relation to the infinite: God, and the immortal souls of our neighbors and, if we are fortunate, our children.
So this Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, as you knock boots with your beloved, remember, you will die. And so, maybe, consider the possibility of making some new life.