This year for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday coincided with that saccharine Hallmark Holiday, Valentine’s Day. I’ve been reflecting on this rare coincidence and at first, found it rather hilarious. My husband and I are not wont to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s not because we disdain romance or because we don’t enjoy a nice date night. In fact, we try to make date nights a regular thing, which might be a part of why we don’t like Hallmark bossing us around and telling us when we should celebrate our love for each other.
After reflecting on the convergence of such seemingly divergent celebrations, I began to find the marriage of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday quite fitting and appropriate. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent and as such is most often equated with the themes of penance, sacrifice, prayer, almsgiving, and the like. We often spend this day of fasting and abstinence asking our friends and family what they are “giving up for Lent” or what spiritual disciplines they are taking up for the six and half week season. We wear ashes on our foreheads and forgo our usual snacks. On the other hand, things we associate with Valentine’s Day include indulgence, beauty, feasts, and gifts. But what is almsgiving if not a gift of love? What is penance if not an act of love? And what is prayer if not a song of love for our Father in heaven?
Lent is meant to prepare us for the Pascal Mystery, the celebration of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, which, of course, is the greatest act of love the world has ever known, much more grandiose and at the same time authentic than any Valentine any of us has ever given. Perhaps Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have more in common than I initially thought.
Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition lift up married love as an image that can remind us of the Trinity. We hear repeatedly throughout Scripture how God’s love of the Church is like that of a groom for his bride. Isn’t this the type of love that Hallmark wants us to celebrate on February 14? The honeymoon-esk love? However, lasting married love isn’t about roses and chocolates (although who doesn’t love those?). It is much more so about sacrifice and humility and the grace received in the Sacrament of Matrimony. It turns out that some of the keys to a successful romantic relationship might be the same things that lead to a successful Lenten journey, namely prayer, sacrifice and humble self-gift.
Valentine’s Day is thought of as the quintessential celebration of love. I propose that Ash Wednesday, and in fact the entire Lenten season, are an even truer celebration of love. We will spend these next several weeks, purifying our hearts for the One who loves us most of all. How do you plan to grow in love for Christ this season?