This year, Ash Wednesday (moves around a bit, due to being tied to Easter, which is tied to the Jewish Passover, which is tied to the cycle of the moon) coincides with Valentine’s Day (February 14). The reminder of our mortality gate-crashes the celebration of romantic love.
That might jar, but it seems to me to be incredibly fitting.
At a wedding in a Church of England place of worship, the marriage vows declare:
I, [Name], take you, [Name],
to be my wife/to be my husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part;
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.
I would suggest that almost all couples say these words in denial of fully half of life.
To be fair, if that were not the case, I’m not sure we’d be brave enough to marry at all. But the vows are not designed with a perfect fairy-tale wedding in mind. They are a carefully considered acknowledgement of what awaits us.
The idea that we are in control of our lives is an illusion. In the analogy of Psalm 23, we live our lives in the shadow of the valley of death, we pass through the dying-experience many times over. But letting-go of the attempt to control what we cannot control—or holding-onto what we cannot hold on to*—is not at all the same thing as fatalism, or despair. The most fitting response to living in the shadow of the valley of death is to drink deeply from the wells of the water of life. And to drink deeply is to discover God’s faithful keeping of his covenant promises**.
As I prepare to meet with those couples getting married at the Minster this year, and for Ash Wednesday a week from tomorrow, I am glad for the gift this year offers.
*The book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books in the Bible. Running through it is the repeated cry ‘hebel,’ often translated ‘meaningless’ or ‘vanity’ but perhaps better—and much more positively—translated ‘fleeting’: fleeting, fleeting, all is fleeting…and beautiful in its appointed time.
**Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a marriage between two people. A marriage is a social contract involving the entire community, with the guests present at the wedding speaking on that community’s behalf, with two people at the centre of this bigger thing. The marriage vows are an expression of our common experience of life—as much for those who have never been married, are divorced, or widowed, as those who are married—alongside the commitment of two people to walk this journey together, with the support of others. Our common experience of life, our inability to control our lives, and God’s faithfulness in all circumstances, are true for those who have a Valentine and those who do not.