This week presents a bit of a conundrum for many Christians. The stars, or more accurately the calendars, have aligned to make St. Valentine’s Day also Ash Wednesday.
The first day of Lent — to many a day of fasting and abstinence from meat — is paired with a day of chocolates, rich dinners and romance. What’s an ardent adherent of such observations to do?
How to reconcile a day when ashes are put on the forehead to remind us of grim mortality with a day when roses are doled out by the dozen to win hearts and rev up the love life?
“You look stunning in that red dress tonight, dear, and the burnt charcoal on your forehead both complements your skin tone and reminds me of my unavoidable demise. A toast: To us and the dust to which we shall return!”
The truth, of course, is that Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of a holiday outlier, in large part because a) the actual saint is shrouded in uncertainty except for b) the fact that he was martyred, probably by beheading.
Yes, every time you say “be my Valentine,” you are essentially saying “be committed to your principles, then die an untimely and gruesome death.”
Valentine’s Day can also be a genuine source of sadness for those who lost (or never found) a loved one, a sort of “couples are the best!” celebration shoved annually in the faces of the uncoupled.
So, yeah, there’s credence to the complaint that V-Day is just a crass commercialization of love. In that context, the conundrum collapses. You can celebrate your love of another any day you like. Mix it with Shrove Tuesday, that Eve-of-Lent bacchanalia intended to be a last blast before the fasting begins. Or go out the Sunday after. If you have someone to mark the day with, presumably you have said someone to mark any day with the same way.
Ash Wednesday is a considerably more formal affair, if you are a believer. It’s not just a single day and back to routine. It’s the beginning of 40 days (excluding Sundays) of somber reflection and often penance in the form of self denial — as in denying the self of some favorite thing, like giving up sweets for the duration.
It hasn’t been commercialized for obvious reasons. How do you make money by urging people to not eat/use/do something? “For Lent, think Lindt: If your going to give up chocolate, give up the best.”
Yet for all its solemnity, Lent is shifty — literally. Its date is set by Easter, and Easter’s date is set as the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox. Ash Wednesday can fall anywhere from Feb. 4 to March 10.
And maybe that’s the real answer to this week’s quandary. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are ultimately just days. We make of them what we wish. Their synchronicity this year may actually highlight a fundamental we all share.
We are mortal. But there are moments of who we are and what we do that feel, well, if not eternal, at least universal.
And those universal bits of brief human existence — like love — can be the very best parts of us.