Wednesday, February 14, 2018 is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. This strange connection causes some problems for Roman Catholics and other Christians who celebrate Lent as a fast in the lead-up to Easter, but it also provides an incentive for holiday mash-up phrases.
The religious fast day Ash Wednesday commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting during his temptation by Satan (recounted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It marks the first day of Lent, a 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter, the day Christians in Western traditions celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Anglicans, some Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics celebrate Lent and Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday services often involve blessing ashes made from burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and spreading them on the foreheads of the faithful. This ceremony involves phrases such as “Repent and believe the Gospel,” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Valentine’s Day celebrates one of at least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, who are celebrated on February 14 in the Roman calendar. One served as a priest in Rome, another as a bishop in Interamna (modern Terni in Italy), and both were martyred in the late 200s and buried on the Flaminian Way in Rome. A third Saint Valentine was martyred in Africa with a number of companions.
According to tradition, Valentine the priest married people in Rome after the Emperor Claudius II banned marriage in the Eternal City. While in jail for this crime, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, and signed it, “From Your Valentine.”
The day became associated with romantic love within the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer. By the 1700s in England, it became an occasion for lovers to express their love for one another. Since the 1800s, handwritten valentines have given way to mass-produced greeting cards.eeeeeeee
Americans celebrate love and joy with lavish romantic dinners, flowers, and chocolates. This seems incompatible with the heavy, repentance-focused holiday of Ash Wednesday. Indeed, Roman Catholic bishops have urged parishioners to forego steak and chocolates for Valentine’s this year, because Ash Wednesday is more important.
“What’s a Catholic to do, many wonder,” wrote Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. “The answer is that Ash Wednesday has precedence, and the coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day would not lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial.”
Nevertheless, here are three suggestions for Ash Wednesday-themed “Valentines,” for lovers who intend on celebrating Lent. Enjoy!
1. Ashes to Ashes, Heart to Heart.
“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return,” Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:20. When priests or pastors place ashes on believers’ foreheads, they often say “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The Epicurean principle that love means more because human lives are short holds true for Christians, not because there is no life after death, but because there is no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:30) — except that of Christ to the church.
Love is sweeter because it is limited to this life, and so Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day meet.
2. I’d Never Give You Up For Lent.
Christians who celebrate Lent choose to forego a good thing in order to suffer with Christ and to remember His fasting. To be clear, the idea is not to “give up” something sinful or inherently bad — you can only “give up” something good.
By promising not to give up your beloved for Lent, you are not only showing your appreciation for him or her as a blessing from God, but you are also making the lover’s promise. It may be corny, but it should bring a smile to your beloved’s eyes.
3. Roses are Red…
Last but not least, here is an Ash Wednesday version of the classic poem “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.”
Roses are red,
Ashes are gray,
You love Jesus more than me,
And I like it that way.
Not romantic? Perhaps. But it is theologically sound, and the idea is that a shared love for God will bring lovers closer together.