You can’t spell “Valentine” without “Lent”…
I find it thought-provoking that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year. The differences in the two commemorations are just this side of comical.
Valentine’s Day conjures up two people scrubbed clean for an important evening out. On Ash Wednesday, most Catholics see it as a sacred duty to go well out of the way to find a church so that some duly-designated person can purposely smear black ashes on the most prominent place on the body. And, of course, it’s not a random mark, but the sign of the cross symbolizing the death of Jesus. As one of my theology professors once famously told the seminary class, “Don’t think about the meaning of all of this while you’re driving.”
Valentine’s Day often comes accompanied by robust demands for creativity, some obligations of gift-giving, and even an aura of extravagance. One rose is not enough, and a dozen roses is also not enough. Keep going. Everything about Ash Wednesday roars of sacrifice, desolation, austerity, simplicity, retrenchment. Don’t you even dare think about a delicious steak dinner! A proper Valentine’s Day, it seems, should send off fireworks of self-esteem: messages of “I feel great about me, I feel great about you, and I feel great about us together.” Next to Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is the Catholic person’s highest holiday of cataloging, indexing and cross-referencing every one of our most grievous and most minor transgressions against God and humanity.
Valentine’s Day is usually conceived as a day with one, and only one, other person. Three is absolutely a crowd and being by yourself is an unmitigated disaster. Ash Wednesday is arguably a day with a profound interior journey by one’s self, where each one of us privately reflects on “where we are in our life with God.” Do we cooperate with God in a way that deepens and enriches our life with Jesus? The prayerful journey to answer that question is an intensely personal, solitary, and private one.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is also an aspect of Ash Wednesday which is extraordinarily communal. Everyone in the Catholic world begins the liturgical season of Lent on the same day and in the same way: with Ash Wednesday. In our collective religious imagination on this day, we are all completely connected to all of the other Catholic people of the world, those in heaven and on earth.
What’s the color of Valentine’s Day? That’s easy: Red, red, and more red. Ash Wednesday isn’t quite as simple. The liturgical color is purple, and that’s the color that the priest will be wearing for Mass that day. If you asked people what color they associate with Ash Wednesday, they would probably say “black,” because we’re all at least somewhat self-conscious (in a good way) of the ashes on our foreheads. So who exactly decided to celebrate these two days, each giving off diametrically-opposed vibes, on the same day? Is this the Holy Spirit? Some trickster god of calendars? Or is it just a thought-provoking coincidence? I think I will let you answer that question for yourselves.
My last thought is to look briefly at the similarities of these two commemorations which happen simultaneously. Ultimately, the centerpiece of both days is love. In the name of love, couples sacrifice, commit, compromise, and share hopes, dreams, and setbacks with a significant other. That’s the Valentine’s Day thing. Also in the name of love, people forgive, reflect, pray, receive pardon, transform, express gratitude, express determination to be better, express humility, and express awe in the presence of the God among us. That’s the Ash Wednesday thing. My suggestion is that, because of love, these two commemorations aren’t really as far removed from one another as they might at first seem.
Fr. Thomas Conway, OFM