In 2018, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are sharing the same date. A similar convergence happened in 1934, 1923, and 1877, and will again in 2029.
Is this a problem for Christian churches that celebrate Ash Wednesday, calling attention away from a solemn liturgical observance to a lighthearted, sometimes silly secular holiday? No. It’s actually quite perfect.
In Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, a 40-day penitential season devoted to reflection and preparation for the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection (Easter). During Lent, the church restrains its joy for a time, meditating on Christ’s suffering and sacrifice and the human sin that made it necessary.
Many liturgical Christians—those who order the church year around events in the life of Christ—attend Ash Wednesday services, during which a cross of ashes is drawn upon the worshiper’s forehead as the following words are spoken: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The ritual symbolizes God’s judgement upon a rebellious creation and the sinner’s need for repentance. It would seem you can’t get any farther away from the flowers, candy, hearts, and cupids of Valentine’s Day. How in the world can Christians reconcile the two extremes?
By not trying. There’s no need to.
Yes, I know. Valentine’s Day is all pink and bouncy and glittery and fluffy, whereas Ash Wednesday is pensive, serious, and dark. Valentine’s Day is about the imperfect and faltering love human beings have for each other—a love primarily erotic or romantic, although many of us use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to express affection for family and friends as well.
Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is about the divine love of God—a love expressed in the act of sending his only-begotten son to die for the sins of all mankind. What possible connection can such perfect love have to the love that we humans struggle to muster for one another—a love that is often unreliable and self-serving, notwithstanding all our Valentine’s Day sentiments to the contrary?
For Christians, the connection is that the only reason we are capable of showing any kind of love to one another is that Christ first showed love to us. When our love for each other fails, as it invariably does in ways both large and small, we look to Christ to see what perfect love looks like, and we find in that perfect love forgiveness for all the times we have fallen short.
There is no need for Christians to set aside the flowers, hearts, and chocolate this Valentine’s Day. There is also no need for Christians to attempt some tortured melding of the two observances in the form of drawing hearts on foreheads instead of crosses, or preaching sermons about how to improve relationships with significant others.
Instead, celebrate Valentine’s Day the way you always have. Do some crafts with your children. Buy flowers for your sweetheart. Send a box of chocolates to your mom.
Then go to church and hear about a love that dwarfs any kind of love you’ve ever known. Receive the ashes and be reminded of how helpless you are without that love and how deeply you need it. Hear in the church-appointed readings for the day what Ash Wednesday means for you. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find there, which is perfect both for Ash Wednesday and for Valentine’s Day.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity. (Joel 2:13)
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)