In case you didn’t know, today is Valentine’s Day. Generally I would not write about this holiday since others share lists and ideas and commentary that seems to cover all aspects of the day. Not to mention, it’s a tricky event to address since there is a lot of hurt and expectation surrounding it. Why have I decided to talk about Valentine’s Day, then? Because today is also Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is part of the liturgical calendar, signifying the beginning of Lent. The day serves as a reminder of our roots, of our origins, that we are dust and someday we will die and return to the ground from whence we came. It sets up a 40 day period leading up to Easter Sunday when the Western Church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. (Side note: Eastern Orthodoxy also has Lent and Easter, but they follow a different calendar than the Western Church)
Now, before I lose you or in case you’re not a member of one of the churches that celebrate lent or you have no interest in this seemingly random Christian holiday, perhaps you have heard of Mardi Gras, Carnivale, or Fat Tuesday. These are all names for similar events that take place the day or week before Ash Wednesday in many countries around the world. The thought or purpose behind these events is to have one last party before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
Why is it such a party day (or week)? Lent is a time of fasting, of giving up earthly pleasures to prepare one’s heart for Passion Week and the remembrance of the death of Jesus. So, in religious terms, before the 40 days of purity for Lent, we (over) indulge in the sinful pleasures we have to give up for over a month. This cleansing begins on Ash Wednesday with a visit to the priest or pastor for a blessing – perhaps you notice a co-worker, neighbor, or friend with the sign of a cross on their forehead.
What got me thinking is how do we celebrate Valentine’s Day on the same day as Ash Wednesday? It seems Valentine’s Day is more in keeping with the revelry of Fat Tuesday than somber Ash Wednesday. If television commercials are any representation, the message that shapes our picture of Valentine’s Day is one of carnal pleasure – chocolate, diamonds, things sold at adult-only stores… So how can Ash Wednesday have anything to do with Valentine’s Day?
Without going into a history of Valentine’s Day – perhaps I’ll save that post for next year – we predominately see it as a day of expressing our love to a significant other. There is a lot of pressure on men to create the perfect day. The pain comes from either not having a significant other or on not having that perfect day come to pass. But what if we didn’t look at love from the typical perspective of Valentine’s Day and rather from the perspective of Ash Wednesday?
A seemingly popular expression for why people don’t like Valentine’s Day is because one day a year shouldn’t be the only day we express our love. It’s hard not to agree, but I think it misses the point. Yes, of course we should love all year, just like we should show our appreciation for mothers and fathers and lost soldiers more than one day a year. So why pick out a day to celebrate an emotion that should be expressed all year? Perhaps a better way to say it is that Valentine’s Day is a day to highlight the act of loving.
This is where Ash Wednesday comes in. We tend to see Valentine’s Day as a day for romantic love. It’s all sappy and based on shifting feelings. However, true romantic love is rooted in love itself. The type of love that has its roots in Ash Wednesday, in Lent, in Easter. It’s a sacrificial love. It’s a love, not about getting, but about giving.
Just like Ash Wednesday and Fat Tuesday are yin and yang, so is giving and receiving love. Not just romantic love, but love of family, of neighbors, of strangers, of the seemingly unlovable. This is the type of love God showed us, the love we celebrate at Easter. So today, as we begin a period of preparation, it seems the perfect day to also celebrate loving one another.