If Valentine’s Day is about the incommensurability of feeling and gesture, Ash Wednesday presents us with the ultimate insufficiency of even our feelings. Whatever suffering we can give God for our sins isn’t enough; even our mortality, somberly contemplated and offered up, is not ours to give. It’s not that we go to God full of penance that is poorly represented by a ritual, but that the ritual itself expresses our need and our state with more force than we can. Insofar as it’s a public declaration of an internal truth, we’re aware that we are trying to express something that God might want us to tell Him, but already knows.
My wife and I just got around to celebrating our December anniversary, so that’s some kind of incommensurability, I suppose. And while I don’t want to spoil the ending to the piece, I think one could also note that the Synoptic Gospels start their accounts of Jesus’ ministry right after his baptism with his temptation in the desert and its 40-day fast, but the Gospel of John begins with the wedding at Cana. Here is Jesus turning water into wine, turning a celebration of plain old human love into… a slightly more inebriated celebration of human love. Because, as Tim Keller noted, Jesus was thinking about his own wedding, too, which means both an Ash Wednesday image of death and a Valentine’s Day feast at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org