On Valentine’s (Ash Wednes)day

You know I love Ordinary Time, but Lent’s nice too!  Here are my musings from today’s services at Gwynedd Mercy University.

Well here it is, Valentine’s (Ash Wednes)day.

Valentine’s Day, of course, is always February 14, but there are 35 possible dates on which Ash Wednesday can fall (36 in a leap year): anywhere from February 4 to March 10.

And yet the last time it fell on February 14th was 73 years ago, in 1945. (But get used to it; it’s going to happen twice more in the next eleven years.  Maybe God’s trying to send us a message!)

I’m not sure what the percentage of overlap is between people who care about Ash Wednesday and people who care about Valentine’s Day. Probably not as much as the Internet would have us believe. But if you Google “Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day,” the search results are pretty alarmist:

  • Feast or Fast?!?
  • Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, but meat ban still in effect, Catholics told!
  • Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, but you still have to practice the faith, religious leaders say!  (Thanks for that, Chicago Tribune.)

But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s actually not a conflict. And those who would make us believe it is are probably misunderstanding both days, and selling us—literally—on a very artificial, commercial understanding of love.

Every February, we’re told that we should “say it with flowers,” and the price of roses shoots up. Grocery stores’ seasonal aisles fill—on the day after Christmas—with giant heart-shaped boxes of chocolate.  Jewelry stores run commercials featuring gifts in the the “now I know you love me” price range.

But real love – romantic or otherwise – has never been about that stuff.  If you think about it, real love is much more akin to the three disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Hang in there with me while I look at the three traditional practices of Valentine’s Day, and compare them with those of Lent.

Practice #1) Saying it with Flowers.
Whatever the “it” is that needs to be said, I’d rather have the words. Sincere words / meaningful conversation / shared vulnerability—things that don’t wither up and die by next Wednesday. It’s what we need in our personal relationships, romantic or otherwise, and it’s what we need in our relationship with God. Showing up. Saying what we feel. Listening for the response. Being vulnerable before the One we love.  That’s a pretty good description of prayer; what a wonderful way to spend a little extra time with God this season!

Practice #2) Buying Giant Boxes of Chocolate.
I do not understand why chocolate is invested with so much power—THE symbol of Valentine’s Day and THE thing to give up on Ash Wednesday for the rest of Lent. Real love is always more about sacrifice than consumption. And by sacrifice I don’t mean “Oh no, I can’t eat that; it’s Lent!”  I mean that we give up stuff for each other all the time. Parents give up sleep for their infants; teachers give up weekends for grading their students’ papers; housemates give up five minutes on the couch to actually do the dinner dishes; students give up whatever they were going to be doing when a friend needs a ride or a shoulder or a study partner. That’s the spirit in which we can frame our Lenten sacrifices, too . . . not setting up some sort of Olympic hurdle for ourselves, but simply asking what we can “give up” for a time in order to create more space in our hearts / minds / lives / schedules, so that we can be less self-indulgent, more responsive to the needs of those we love and, more importantly, those God loves (which is everyone).

Practice #3) Giving Expensive Jewelry.
TV commercials would have us believe that love is best expressed with a jaw-dropping price tag. We know that’s not true. But real love is generous. Love is open-eyed and openhearted. Love sees the need. The need of the person right in front of us, and the needs of people we will never meet. Love sees the need and responds—sometimes with money, other times with attention or service or time. Lent invites us to that kind of generosity, and calls it almsgiving.

So as we move into the season of Lent, go ahead and let this Valentine’s Ash Wednesday set the tone.

  • Carve out quality time with the God you love.
  • Give up something that gets in the way of your freedom to love.
  • And let that love overflow with generosity.

What could be more appropriate?

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