In our house we like to say, “Expectations are just preplanned resentments.” There’s a reason it’s become a familiar line. Because I tend to live with high expectations, around holidays especially. My birthday, Christmas, our anniversary and Valentine’s Day—all great days rife with almost unlimited potential to be ruined by my unrealistically high and poorly communicated desires for the day.
The thing about Valentine’s Day especially is, I am not a romantic in the traditional sense. I don’t love stuffed animals partnered with a box of chocolates. I like flowers, but a bouquet from Trader Joe’s is just as good as a dozen long stem roses from a local florist. But something about Valentine’s Day makes me feel like there is a script to follow for the day, and even if I don’t like the script, it must go according to plan. There better be some romantic gesture. There better be some sweet note. There better be a nice dinner out. Going through these motions is really important to me.
But the truth is, oftentimes they are just that, motions. They are the idea of what I think romance should look like, without taking into account what romance actually looks like for us. CVS and Hallmark tell me Valentine’s Day should look one way, and I believe them. But in actuality, that’s not what I want.
It’s supposed to be a day all about love, but it isn’t really. It’s a day all about how we think love should behave. There’s a prescription we follow, a plan we adhere to, and a design we participate in. It isn’t about us, really. It’s about what we are told love should be. It makes for a good show, but oftentimes, that’s all love is on this day. A show. A presentation. An attempt to appear a certain way.
This year, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday—the day that begins the 40-day countdown to Easter Sunday—fall on the same day. Ash Wednesday is the day when the palm fronds from the Palm Sunday the year before are burned and the ashes are then used by priests to draw a cross on the foreheads of their parishioners while saying, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.”
It seems a strange combination of days to have at the same time. A mushy and sentimental toned day, matched with a somber and mortality themed day.
Valentine’s Day is a day that celebrates what we dream love should be. It’s idealistic and optimistic and maybe a bit naïve. It’s our attempt to say, “Look world! Look at the romance! Look at our in love-ness!”
Ash Wednesday is a day that commemorates what life really is which means, by default, it commemorates what love really is, too. Where we understand love isn’t just in the giving of flowers, but the days when the petals start dropping, the edges start wilting and the water starts smelling, where maybe the thing given to represent it, starts to die itself. Where love isn’t just the appearance of in love-ness, but in the sacrificial, dying to self, love too. Where love isn’t just chocolates and candy, but the doing of dishes, the wiping of counters, the folding of laundry, and the relinquishing of the remote.
They don’t make Valentine’s Day cards that talk about the sort of death required between two people celebrating the day. That yes, it is romantic and beautiful and even in its death, sort of life-giving. But it’s hard too. And sometimes all you have to show for it are the ashes of something because that’s all that’s left.
I think I would do better on Valentine’s Day if each year I saw it tied as closely as it is this year to a day of ashes. If it was a day to see the sacrifice and gifting of self, commemorating real love willingly laying itself down for the sake of the other and not superfluous gestures that feel forced and scripted and not at all an accurate measure of love in the day in and day out of living.
Maybe it’s morbid. But maybe morbid isn’t so terrible. Maybe, on this day when we celebrate love, we need some ashes in the mix to be reminded that love often comes in the most unassuming ways, and that a day where we are reminded of our humanity and our mortality is the perfect chance to propel us towards extravagant love of someone else. Because this is the only chance we have. And if we come from dust and are returning to dust, than maybe that adds a bit of perspective we could use. Maybe that helps us swallow our pride, maybe it helps us pick our battles, maybe it helps us not take ourselves so seriously.
I’ll take the flowers and the chocolate and the cards and the gifts on Valentine’s Day, but maybe, with some ashes on the side. I think that’s more of the point anyway. Less about a picture of romance and more about the practice of intentionality in light of numbered days and passing time. The ashes serve to remind me of what’s been given on my behalf and what I can give on behalf of others.
And that’s a love worth celebrating.