Next week, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same date – Feb. 14. Is there any way to make these two feast days work together? One tends to be a secular demonstration of romance, filled with chocolate and decadent dining and the poetry of love. The other is a day set aside for fasting and penance, preparing ourselves to die to old ways and rise to new life at Easter.
What do these two days have in common? The short answer is love.
One celebration wraps it in lace. The other expresses it in ashes. Valentine’s Day is an expression of the genius that humanity has for love in all its expressions. Ash Wednesday is an expression of the genius of divine love, its ability to turn death into life. The act of putting them together invites us to look at love in a deeper way – to find a promise of the sweetness of the love of God in the ashes, and to appreciate the limits, even the vulnerability, of human love relationships in the expanse of time, as fleeting as a piece of chocolate, as short as a valentine verse.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our need for the love of God, and the promise of God’s presence, especially in our limited lives. We remember that we are made of dust and to dust we shall return. From the dust of stars to the dust of decay, we are part of a great cycle of creation that draws life from all that has come before us. But we remember also that God entered that dust as Jesus, made it holy with His life among us, and then turned that dust into something divine – by inviting us fully into the life of God with Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. Placing ashes on one’s forehead is a sober act to be sure. But it is also a hopeful one, a visible sign that we are committing ourselves to transformation, reorienting ourselves along the arc of resurrection and participating in the saving work of God.
That is the sweetness in the ashes. And so perhaps a taste of chocolate or a sip of champaign is not so out of place on the day. Valentine’s Day rituals can still do their job of reminding us of the dearness of our love relationships, of the people that we cherish and share life with, and of God’s presence in them as the source of love. Celebrated on Ash Wednesday, they can also carry the bittersweet reality of the limits and imperfections of our human love and the endpoints of our human lifespans.
To these limits we place the long view of God’s Easter life with us and savor that promise of lasting sweetness.
So, come Feb. 14 you have my permission to celebrate both, however you celebrate. And if you need a head-start on them, make sure to stop by the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner and Talent Show at 6 p.m. on Feb. 13 to fill up on laughter and pancakes and community, enough to help us make it through even the thinnest days of Lent.