Lots of Roman Catholic authors are writing about the conflict between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. This hasn’t happened for seventy years and it brings into conflict that desire for pleasures often times satisfied by chocolate and a commitment to fast from certain physical delights during the forty days of Lent. Here is how one Lutheran tries to resolve the tension:
Valentine’s Day is about the imperfect and faltering love human beings have for each other—a love primarily erotic or romantic, although many of us use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to express affection for family and friends as well.
Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is about the divine love of God—a love expressed in the act of sending his only-begotten son to die for the sins of all mankind. What possible connection can such perfect love have to the love that we humans struggle to muster for one another—a love that is often unreliable and self-serving, notwithstanding all our Valentine’s Day sentiments to the contrary?
For Christians, the connection is that the only reason we are capable of showing any kind of love to one another is that Christ first showed love to us. When our love for each other fails, as it invariably does in ways both large and small, we look to Christ to see what perfect love looks like, and we find in that perfect love forgiveness for all the times we have fallen short.
There is no need for Christians to set aside the flowers, hearts, and chocolate this Valentine’s Day. There is also no need for Christians to attempt some tortured melding of the two observances in the form of drawing hearts on foreheads instead of crosses, or preaching sermons about how to improve relationships with significant others.
Instead, celebrate Valentine’s Day the way you always have. Do some crafts with your children. Buy flowers for your sweetheart. Send a box of chocolates to your mom.
Then go to church and hear about a love that dwarfs any kind of love you’ve ever known. Receive the ashes and be reminded of how helpless you are without that love and how deeply you need it. Hear in the church-appointed readings for the day what Ash Wednesday means for you. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find there, which is perfect both for Ash Wednesday and for Valentine’s Day.
For Protestants who don’t observe the church calendar, this year Valentine’s Day conflicts with mid-week prayer meeting (do the megachurches and uptempo Praise & Worship churches still have this?). For millennials unfamiliar with prayer meetings, they usually fall on Wednesday nights and provide a time for a congregation to hear a short devotional, then make prayer requests (some of them with way too much TMI — oy, when you get into the medical weeds), and then with a time for anyone gathered to pray. It is the one time that Protestants do their impersonation of Quakers — letting the inner Light or the Spirit move the average believer to pray no matter how unstructured, repetitive, or how many “just-wanna”s are in them. For this baby boomer, prayer meetings were always awkward.
But this year, they have the advantage of not requiring me or my bride to give up anything for a holy day of obligation. Sure, if we go out we may have to dine with the blue-haired set in order to be at church on time. Or we go out to eat after the meeting and risk finding out that the specials have been 86ed (the waiters vernacular for “all out”). Or if I give my wife a box of chocolates and she lets me have a few, I don’t need to feel guilty for indulging my appetites on the wrong day.
Sometimes being Protestant is good.
Postscript: for the record I should add that our Orthodox Presbyterian congregation does not have a prayer meeting but does gather families and members for pizza before a lecture on theology. Some Protestants avoid the rituals of both Rome and evangelicals.