It seems weird to mix Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. One’s the annual celebration of love and the other the annual reminder of our own mortality. But the two belong together more than we think.
In 2018 we are fortunate to have St. Valentine’s Day land on Ash Wednesday. And the juxtaposition of the two holidays is sweet. In the one we’re reminded of love and the other, death.
Go ahead and insert your jokes. I’ll wait.
And while many are finding the notion of celebrating these two feasts on the same day is really quite delicious (I’m one of them) I do think we’re all missing the more central point.
Ash Wednesday makes Valentine’s Day better.
I know you don’t believe me. Especially if you’ve been raised in a Hallmark household with tidy expectations for every holiday. In that world, Valentine’s Day is a day of love and exchanging of cards when you’re young. When you’re older, it means flowers, chocolate, and a date night at a minimum.
I always hated that Valentine’s Day.
Despite my gruff exterior and aloof nature, I’m a romantic at heart. I love love. I love emotion and experience. What I suck at is remembering the little things. The little things which seem to define the Hallmark version of Valentine’s Day. Like remembering to do all the things.
But the real Valentine’s Day isn’t a Hallmark holiday. It’s the celebration of a martyr (or three), not cupid. And most importantly, it is a day of civil disobedience in the midst of oppression.
It’s now time to replace your Valentine’s Day with St. Valentine’s Day.
In a world addicted to violence and division, St. Valentine’s Day honors love and law-breaking in the midst of persecution.
When the government would make an entire class of people an enemy of the state out of fear of their radical religious beliefs and outlaw their commitments to one another, St. Valentine honors love above the state, devotion more than patriotism, and faith in the face of evil.
Give me that St. Valentine’s Day today!
The Revolution Begins Ash Wednesday
In light of what we commemorate on the Feast of St. Valentine, we can see why Ash Wednesday is such a good complement to St. Valentine’s Day. It’s because Ash Wednesday is the spark of revolution.
While this saint’s feast carries far more cultural baggage, there is no choice for the church. Ash Wednesday is the feast which begins Lent, a season of fasting and penitence.
Lent is most known as the time when Catholics eat fish on Fridays and Episcopalians give up chocolate or caffeine. Or if you’re our kids it’s “the few weeks when Mommy and Daddy are really cranky.”
But Lent is more than giving something up for a few days and indulging when it’s done. These are merely the liturgical practices of instruction: this is how we learn the thing, not the thing itself.
And that thing is about mercy.
Ash Wednesday is the one day in which we are reminded explicitly and intentionally that over the next 40 days, it is our work, our job to psych ourselves up for showing mercy to the worst of the worst.
It’s the day we embark on a journey of deepening our spirituality, commitment, and devotion to God. And knowing that we can’t just say that and make it true. We have to do something.
So we fast. Which can mean abstaining from food or from meat. It can also mean abstaining from other things.
Like consumerism and gross consumption. Or from toxic habits which block us from God.
It is the abandoning the need to be right, holding a grudge, demanding more of others than you demand of yourself.
Ash Wednesday kicks off a revolution. A love and mercy revolution. And the time right after: the 40 days of fasting: is our basic training.
In Lent, three things happen.
- We prepare newcomers, seekers, and recommitting believers to make a public commitment to God and the way of Jesus in Baptism and Confirmation.
- We prepare those who have committed notorious sins for reconciliation with and return to the community.
- And the community prepares to let in both newcomers and reconciled sinners as equals. As if they had every right and support as one who has been here for 50 years.
On Ash Wednesday, we’re reminded love and mercy for others are integral to our faith. They are the very tissue of our love for God.
And we do this by practicing preparation and reconciliation. By putting our love and mercy into physical practice in our community.
Literally, nothing is more important for Christians than love and mercy.
Not your piety or precious “sincerely held beliefs”.
Not your damn prayers.
Or the mandatory altar calls.
Not the fake nice.
Or that obsession with how I use my body.
Or the gender on the bathroom door.
That is the way of death.
And in Lent, all of these cultural commitments are exposed as evil temptations. Like Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, evil knows the human heart can be wooed with power and security.
Consumer goods and chocolate hearts become our idols of distraction and disorientation.
The demands of defining love, boxing it, locking it up in a cramped cell of mandatory flowers and dispassionate affection hinder our work of mercy, our learning to love.
Tracking each other’s devotion, marking the ways we love each other, how we express our undying and personal devotion to another human being—does any of that help us to learn love and mercy? Does score keeping and record keeping help us love them? Does it help us love God any more?
Do you honestly feel like you’re loving God when you’re hating someone?
A Remarkable Gift
The remarkable gift of St. Valentine wasn’t the secret marriages he presided over in the midst of Christian persecution. It is the example of what Christ’s love looks like in a culture of political hate.
This gift is most especially needed now as the state’s persecution of a religious minority should cause Christians to show mercy on their Muslim friends, echoing the voice of God to the people so long ago
As we remember our own persecution, we will not persecute you.
In the growing hatred and calls for violence against state-determined enemies, we are called to love and seek to reconcile with them; like Esau with Jacob, like Joseph with his brothers, like the prodigal son with his father.
In a time of perpetual war overseas and upon those in our midst through mass incarceration, we are reminded by Jesus that no sin is so grave that they aren’t beyond the love of God. So we seek reconciliation.
We need ashes on our St. Valentine’s Day.
We need to remember our call to love and reconciliation.