Today is Valentine’s Day. And Ash Wednesday. The seeming contradiction between a day centered around chocolate hearts and sentimental messages of romantic love and a day dedicated to reminding us that we are all going to die is not lost on those of us who aspire to be both loving spouses and faithful Christians. (Of course, the fact that the original St. Valentine remembered by the holiday that bears his name was beaten and then decapitated for attempting to convert the emperor Claudius to Christianity in 269 AD probably brings the two remembrances closer than most people think.)
I really wish Hallmark had had the foresight to create a line of Ash Valentine’s Day cards. Maybe something like:
Roses are red,
People are dust.
Repent from your sins,
Lest your soul become rust.
Okay, so romantic poetry isn’t really my thing. The point is that for most people, the ideas of love and death seem mutually exclusive. When we are buying flowers and preparing for a romantic evening, we don’t want to be reminded of our ultimate mortality. We certainly don’t want be told to “give things up” on a day that has become synonymous with personal indulgence.
I would suggest, however, that the seeming disconnect between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday is due to a fundamental understanding of both, and that seeing the connections between the two will ultimately end up making both days more meaningful.
Lutherans love Lent. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it has been my experience that when compared and contrasted to Christians of other stripes and flavors, those in the tribe of the Great Reformer seem to have an odd affinity for the season of reflection preceding Easter. Perhaps it’s because we appreciate having a chance to simplify our lives for 40 days and to focus singularly focus on God’s redemptive work. Maybe we like convincing ourselves that making superficial sacrifices reflects well on our personal spirituality. Maybe we’re just sadists that enjoy self-flagellation and denial. Whatever the case, it does seem to be true that Lutherans do embrace this season in a way that most others do not.
I was reminded of this fact as I attended the Ash Wednesday service at my church. Attendance for the evening service was good—maybe not as high as it had been on Sunday morning, but still significant, including a number of families with small children. It was actually one of those very rare instances where I was attending alone—Beth had decided that it would probably a bit of a push to get all of the kids fed and to the church on time, but granted me a special dispensation to attend, knowing my weird affinity for having ashes placed on my forehead. Still, I found myself sitting in the back of the sanctuary with the other families with small children out of sheer habit.