This morning, my husband wished me a Happy Lincoln’s Birthday. That’s only the first of the holiday greetings this week, as today is also Mardi Gras, followed by Ash Wednesday and then Valentine’s Day on Thursday. The juxtaposition of the start of Lent and the celebration of Valentine’s Day got me thinking a lot this week about how it seems like a contrast, the stark sacrifice and solemnity of Ash Wednesday interrupted by the lavish demonstrations of earthly affection on Thursday. The church bulletin on Sunday was filled with upcoming Lenten events, ways to make our devotion and sacrifice stronger during the season. Meanwhile the media keeps blasting advertisements for last-minute gifts for your beloved and incessant reminders not to be that partner who messes up the date and forgets Valentine’s Day. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality and kicks off a season of fasting. Valentine’s Day usually serves as a secular feast day, filled with sweets and flowers in an explosion of red and pink. As I pondered the overlap of these events, the sacred and the profane, the austere and the indulgent, I wondered what, if anything, these holidays might share beyond the calendar.
My girls are early birds. Always have been. The one who sleeps in gets up at 6, and the only reason she stays in bed that late is because we put a light on a timer and told her she can’t call for us until it turns on. Many mornings we hear loud whispers and the occasional crash that indicate she is playing up there in the dark. What this means for my family is that we attend the sparsely-populated 8 am service, the one with no nursery and lots of gracious, charitable people who put up with us. Nap time comes early in the Newcomb household, and the few times we’ve tried to go to the regular service produced massive meltdowns that we’d prefer never to repeat in public or in private.
So this Sunday provides a typical image of my family at church: me, holding the baby while she pulls my hair, plays with my necklace, grabs my scarf, and, if I put her down, tries to crawl down the aisle. Really, at this point, I accessorize for her sake. My elder daughter plays with a lunchbox filled with little dolls. Sometimes she sets them up as if they, too, are attending church, and, afterward I encourage her to say “That’s so meta.” My husband, meanwhile, runs interference, reminding the preschooler to stay quiet, taking the occasional turn with the baby, and diving under the pews to stealthily retrieve a stuffed animal or a bit of cracker. Did I mention that our congregation is filled with kind, charitable people? Our pastor supports this insanity and he and the other members at the service remind us on difficult days that such challenges are seasonal. One day, our kids really will sleep later, and they’ll get involved in Sunday school, and my husband and I will feel like we’re actually attending church again. In the meantime, we do the best we can, with a lot of compassion and understanding from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Parenting small children, like so many other activities in grownup lives, can be distracting. It can distract from our marital relationship as well as our relationships with God. Parenthood draws my husband and I into different roles, in relation to each other and in relation to God. We spend more time on triage and less on contemplation, and while we strive to remain active members of our congregation, getting everyone packed into the car after a successful (i.e., tantrum free) church service yields something more like a sigh of relief than a peace that passes all understanding. One of our Lenten goals is to get these kids in the nursery, because while we accept that sometimes this is the season we’re in, we both know that our individual relationships with God ought to be first, followed by our marital relationship. And parenting makes it all too easy to slip into the roles of perpetual parents, forgetting that we are first children of God and second, partners and lovers united in God’s holy covenant.
So while this week’s timing—Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day—is largely coincidental, these two holidays are joined in my thoughts as reminders to attend to my relationships.
Routinely cited as a “Hallmark holiday,” fabricated by greeting-card companies to turn a profit on the seemingly-infinite human penchant for sap and sentimentality, Valentine’s Day actually originated as a religious feast day. History.com reports that Valentine was beheaded around 278 AD after defying the Roman Emperor Claudius II’s prohibition on marriage and engagement. The emperor sought to sever the affectionate ties within marriages that made men less eager to serve as soldiers, and the priest continued to perform wedding rites in secret. That is, at least, one version of the story, though it is cited as legend only loosely based in history, made more ambiguous by the uncertainty about how many “Valentines” really existed with a claim to that particular fame.Strictly true, patently false, or somewhere hazily in between, the Valentine’s Day lore we inherit today manifests in traditions that can border on conspicuous consumption, but, I believe, often express heart-felt sentiments. Even as a made-up holiday, Valentine’s Day reminds us to do what so many of us often neglect: to treasure our relationships and to show our affection. Perhaps the practice of giving roses in February, when they are most expensive, out-of-season, and undoubtedly made more costly by Valentine-demand signals not just a cynical, crass consumerism, but a gesture of extravagant love. Impractical and expensive, it reminds us of the absurdity of romantic love, the inexplicable giddiness of loving and being loved, the way that Eros can make fools of us all. This is not to say that price-tags or participation in Valentine’s Day (or the choice not to) make our love meaningful. It’s the other way around. It’s our love that imbues our silliness with significance. I, for one, made my husband a homemade card this year. It’s a sheet of green construction paper covered with neon feathers and magazine cutouts of birds. On the inside I wrote “Owl always love you.” That’s just the kind of wife I am.
The silliness and sentimentality of Valentine’s Day underscore the importance of human relationships, and preparing for February 14 (or not) can be a way to mark time, to turn from the distractions of dreary winter days and regard the rose—just as it is love that marks and beautifies our existence. Lent, in similar fashion, is fundamentally about marking time within our relationships – but this time with God. The Lenten season falls between epiphany (the exciting aftermath of Christmas celebrations) and the hope of Resurrection Sunday. Typically practiced as a 40-day fast beginning on Ash Wednesday, the weekdays leading up to Easter symbolize the days of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Each Sunday serves as a reprieve and “mini-Easter,” reminding us that we are a resurrected people, choosing to walk the dark road that Christ walked because He walked it first and lights the way. We know where that road goes, because the cross and the empty tomb that define that story define us as a people, relationally bound to a God who loves us enough to die for us.
As Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts explains in “How Lent Can Make a Difference in Your Relationship with God,” “Some segments of Protestantism did continue to recognize a season of preparation for Easter, however. Their emphasis was not so much on penitence and fasting as on intentional devotion to God.” Just as Valentine’s Day can be used as an act of consumerism or a display of couple-ness in a world that (wrongly) excludes and pathologizes singleness, Lent too can be used as a superficial devotion or a self-righteous legalism. The problem, in both instances, is not the holidays in and of themselves, but the hearts of those who choose to observe them. Valentine’s Day can remind lovers to attend to their loved ones, to step out, if only for a day, from routine and obligation to demonstrate the many kinds of human love that make life beautiful. Lent, likewise, can remind Christians to attend to the God who makes such love possible, who fosters love because love is His very ontology. A Lenten sacrifice or service can help make us intentional toward God, so that our relationship is not accidental or incidental but devout, filled to the measure that we are capable of with the love that defines us as God’s people—a people living out the happily-ever-after of God’s greatest love story, the Easter pageant. God Himself is the original extravagant lover and giver of gifts.
This year, I’m not sure if my husband and I will make it to our official Ash Wednesday service; timing issues will likely make it difficult for my girls to attend and comport themselves with the solemnity appropriate to a service centered on the words “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” But that’s only the beginning of the Lenten story. The ashes used to sign the foreheads of the worshipers come from the fronds of last year’s Palm Sunday; Lent proceeds to another Palm Sunday, with more fronds that will, in turn, become next year’s ashes. We act out the processional to Easter Sunday year after year, confident in a story that ends with an act of definitive love. Season after season, that love comes full circle, rising from the ashes and telling the story of our relationship with God.
Whether we choose to celebrate Lent, Valentine’s Day, or both, it is our love—who and what we love, how and why we love—that makes us who we are. These days do not create our love or make it significant, but they can help us to recognize it, to celebrate it and set it apart as extraordinary. Like the rose that blooms in February and the empty tomb amidst the darkness of the crucifixion, both Valentine’s Day and Lent mark our time—and our lives—with love. And that’s the heart of the matter, for Valentine’s Day as well as Lent.