I don’t know how often Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, but it’s happening today. While this collision of special days may pose challenges to those planning to give up chocolate for Lent, the messages behind both “holidays” aren’t really that far apart.
From St. Valentine To Valentine’s Day
According to Wikipedia, one story about St. Valentine is that he performed clandestine Christian marriage ceremonies for Roman soldiers, and sent them cut out hearts “to remind these men of their vows and God’s love.” The first record of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love dates to the 1400s, and Valentine’s Day is referenced in Hamlet (Act IV, Scene 5), by Ophelia:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
On the surface, the focus of Ash Wednesday is a far cry from Valentine’s Day. It is a solemn holy day in the church calendar, and the readings remind us of our sinful nature and call us to repentance. But the readings also include promises of God’s love and grace.
The opening prayer from the Ash Wednesday service in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer puts it this way:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have created and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Being reminded of God’s forgiveness before we confess our sins reinforces God’s unconditional love for us.
The readings also include Psalm 103, which has these comforting verses:
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy,
slow to anger and full of great kindness.
He will not always accuse us,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.
Even as we are called to confess our sins, this Psalm reminds us that God loves our whole selves.
This year, when I receive ashes on Valentine’s Day, not only will I “remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return,” but also that I am a beloved child of God.