The Romance of Ash Wednesday

This year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday happen to be kissing cousins. On the same […]

Sarah Condon / 2.12.18

This year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday happen to be kissing cousins. On the same day that people everywhere will purchase bear stuffed animals holding hearts that say, “I love you beary much,” people will also have ashes smeared on their heads as a person whispers to them, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

It is an odd coincidence. And it provides endless opportunities to “get creative” with the liturgy. You can grind up pink chalk and smear the rose colored dust onto the faithful while pushing a pink heart into their foreheads. You could just forgo the whole, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” in light of something with more pizzaz: “You are loved, now go and love everyone else.” These are both terrible ideas. Everyone knows that pink chalk is impossible to get out of your hair and earnest people telling other people to love each other works for about 42 seconds.

But I refuse to simply toss aside the coincidence of these two holydays/holidays sharing a moment. After all, when the world sees coincidence, we see God trying to tell us something.

When I hear coincidence, I think clarity. So what is our Lord trying to clarify?

I’d love to write all about marriage here. Because I do think that there is something to be said for the covenant we make to love one another until death do us part. While undeniably flawed, married love is the closest thing we get to God promising us undeserved devotion. Plus, I do believe that marriage is the moment when God takes two piles of trash, lights them on fire, and then calls the ashes “good.”

But it is romance and not explicitly marriage, that I find so interesting on this complicated and bound up February 14, 2018. 

Almost 11 years ago, my husband and I were already disappointed about our first Valentine’s Day together. I had started to work at a publishing company and there was a big conference in Pittsburg. It was scheduled for February 14th. 

We had given up on the concept of romance before we had even started. I can remember us saying to one another, “This whole Valentine’s Day thing doesn’t make any sense anyway. It’s a racket.” 

And then it snowed a lot. And my conference was cancelled. And suddenly, we really wanted to feel collectively swept off of our feet. 

I immediately called our favorite restaurant, a little place called Bistro Le Steak on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. They worked us into their schedule. Now, the problem was going to be getting to the restaurant. While typically walkable for us, the snow was thick, still falling, and I was determined to wear high heels. So we got a cab for the mere 6 blocks it took to get to dinner.

When we pulled up to the curb, the wintery slush was everywhere. I could not manage to get over it on my own. So my husband walked to my side of the car, physically picked me up, and carried me over the snowy threshold and onto the sidewalk. When we walked into the restaurant, people clapped. Unbeknownst to us, they had been watching us from the windows.

Two young lovers, newly married, swept up in the romance of things not working out the way we thought they would.

This is romance to me. When we clearly had other plans and they just didn’t work out. Which, for the record, is also a very apt description of life. I had planned on being the single preacher lady of a small church in Mississippi. And somehow God gave me two kids, a husband, an obvious vocation as a minister’s wife and ordination. It is all much more complicated and romantic than I had ever envisioned.

And in a more painful turn of events, I had always figured I would be balanced, moral, and kind. But most days I find myself being jealous, frustrated, and regretful. I do the thing I do not wish to do like it is programmed into my soul. You know, like a real person.

And these days the whole you-are-turning-into-dust Ash Wednesday message is particularly radical. Because based on all of the gym memberships we have, green smoothies we consume, and aghast hospital rooms I have ministered to, we all now assume that we will live forever. If we can only be healthy enough or spiritual enough or hardworking enough, then maybe we can reverse the inevitable.

Of course, we cannot. And this is a good thing. Life would be absolutely horrible if it were actually one successful self-improvement project after another. We would become entrenched in our own deeds. Lost in our own remarkable talents. Fixated on ourselves for all of eternity. 

Perhaps dying is actually the most romantic thing God does for us. It is the last thing we would expect and the best thing that could possibly happen. We die to ourselves, to our desires, to our unquenchable drive for the illusive better.

Failure is a gift. Death is a blessing.

So may your dust-to-be find sweet relief. And love feel entirely unearned.

Have a wonderfully romantic Ash Wednesday, everyone.