I used to think relationships either ended or were “forever”.

But in fact all relationships end sooner or later, and even the strongest most enduring marriages end in death.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This Valentine’s Day falls on the traditional Christian observance of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

“Let us change our garments to sackcloth and ashes. Let us fast and weep before the Lord…”

…and then pick up some flowers for the wife or girlfriend before a romantic restaurant dinner.

Despite its Christian origins as the feast day of a saint, Valentine’s Day has become a secular observance for the celebration of romantic love, unyoked from any religious sensibility. A little like marriage in this country.

Ash Wednesday is unlikely to take off in the same fashion.

Fasting may be going through a bit of a revival thanks to the 5:2 diet fad, but smearing one’s head with ashes and dressing up in sackcloth is yet to go viral.

Not that people aren’t into penance. How many of us give to charities or make consumer choices for “organic”, “fair-trade”, or “cruelty-free” products out of a sense of making up for our ecological and economic sins?

How many of us buy toys for our kids or do something extra nice for our spouse to atone for our faults?

How much so-called “virtue-signalling” and “slacktivism” is motivated by an underlying sense that we’re not doing enough, not good enough, not wonderful enough for the world we live in or the people we care about?

The tradition of sackcloth and ashes has a societal, aesthetic, and psychological meaning to it. We go out of our way, most of the time, to look good and feel comfortable. At the very least we try to avoid looking egregiously bad or being desperately uncomfortable.

Wearing sackcloth and smearing our heads with ashes would therefore symbolise a purposeful embrace of humiliation and discomfort.

But the spiritual significance of the penance is much lovelier than social and aesthetic explanations would suggest.

“Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”

What a relief! Here the sackcloth and ashes become more than just an act of repentance for our faults. Instead they are a reminder of our metaphysical status in this world.

The flip side of humiliating oneself with public acts of penance is that we no longer have much of a stake in the prestige and demands of social status.

The worldly values that make sackcloth and ashes humiliating and therefore penant are themselves abjured when we remember who and what we truly are.

Worldly humiliation becomes genuine humility, reflected even in the Latin root of the word humble, from humus meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’.

True humility lies in knowing that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All our worldly affairs, striving, and accomplishments, but also our troubles, fears and dilemmas are but dust.

But this would still be a bit of a downer if that was all there was to life. Our relationships might all be dust, but that doesn’t mean your romantic dinner should turn to ashes in your mouth.

On the contrary, this act of penance, or remembering who you are, is still only half the message. It is the act of returning to God, of getting our understanding and our priorities straight. And once we have returned, we aren’t left with dust and ashes.

Just as worldly penance returns us to good social standing, spiritual penance sets us right with God. Thus the psalms tell us:

“His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in due season, and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does he prospers.”

It’s tempting at times to take a simple binary view of Christianity and the world. The world is celebrating Valentine’s Day while the Christians begin their penitential season. How typical!

The world is celebrating feel-good romantic love, while the dour Christians make a show of painting crosses on their foreheads.

The world is obsessed with sex, commerce, and entertainment, while faithful Christians are seeking to atone and repent.

But these simple dichotomies were not entertained by Christ himself:

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans pursue all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”

Does “all these things” include romantic love? I’d like to think so.

In returning to God we are returning to love itself, albeit a love deeper and more powerful than Valentine’s Day alone could ever inspire or allow.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He blogs at zacalstin.com and has published a fantasy novel, and a philosophical guide to weight-loss of all things.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...