Crossing Our Hearts on Ash Wednesday

The cross of Christ speaks of an unending love story.

Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, “The Crucifixion,” ca. 1675
Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, “The Crucifixion,” ca. 1675 (photo: Public Domain)

Grocery stores are brimming with bright red hearts in anticipation of Valentine’s Day. There are teddy bears holding stuffed hearts, cards embroidered with pink hearts and generously sized heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. In the midst of the gray winter days, Valentine’s Day lifts our spirits and gives us reason to smile. 

But wait a minute! This year, two important events will be on a collision course: Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Really, could the two days be any more different? One holiday beams with vibrant red hearts, symbolizing life and love, while the other features ashes, a bleak reminder of our deaths. The message couldn’t be any clearer than the moment when the priest draws a cross on our foreheads and intones, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Talk about a downer for Valentine's Day, right? I mean, who wants to think about death, when you’re contemplating clusters of roses, flowery cards and tempting truffles? And for those who give up sweets during the Lenten season, the clash of these two days means the holiday celebrated with roses and sugary treats will lack its usual luster.

However, on closer look, perhaps ashes and hearts bear something in common. The moment a cross is drawn upon our foreheads, we symbolically step through a door leading into a long passageway, which is dark and quiet and somewhat foreboding. That passageway is Lent, when we ponder our lives, especially “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” The joyful tones of the alleluias are silenced at Mass, while at home, tuna fish replaces steak and beer gives way to water. 

Still, at the end of the dark passageway, there is glorious and wondrous light, which is the Resurrection. On Easter, fasting surrenders to feasting, the alleluias ring out and death gives way to life. At the very heart of the Resurrection is love, because God sent his Son because he loves us so much and wanted to give us the way to heaven.

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” There’s a secret many people don’t know, which is that love and death go hand in hand, even if the flowery greeting cards fail to mention it.

This certainly doesn’t mean that sweethearts ponder death when they're young and smitten with one another. But when they stand before the crucifix on the altar to profess their vows, they will utter words that are truly chilling: “Until death us do part.” So even in the midst of a sacrament linking the hearts of two people in love comes a note of doom and gloom.

Husbands and wives will be separated by death, but Christ’s death brought him closer to us. The Cross left us a lasting emblem of real love that is etched in blood. This authentic Christlike love is marked by selflessness and sacrifice, which means denying ourselves pleasures for the sake of others. “The price of love is oneself” is an old saying that sums it up nicely.

In his poem, “Oh, God, I Love Thee,” Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins writes about the horrors of the crucifixion, marked by nails and lance and death. Still, the cross of Christ speaks of an unending love story. As Hopkins plaintively writes, “Then I, why should I not love thee, Jesu, so much in love with me?”

The connection between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday is easy to imagine, when we realize that Christ loved us so much that he sacrificed his life on the cross for us. Yes, it’s true that, as Lent opens, we hear the words “to dust you shall return,” but in the deepest part of our souls, we know that Jesus’ love has overcome death, and the ashes on our foreheads go hand-in-hand with hearts.

We begin Lent with ashes shaped as crosses on our foreheads and repentance in our hearts. In imitation of Christ, we fashion a cross, composed of daily sacrifices, which we carry for the 40 days of Lent. Oddly enough, on some Ash Wednesdays, the mark on my forehead didn’t bear any resemblance to a cross. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed the smudge bore the shape of a heart.