When the first day of Lent falls on a romantic holiday, love and death meet up.
Today, on Valentine’s Day, while the world is bedecked with schmaltzy red and pink hearts, I will stand before kneeling members of my congregation and tell them that they are going to die. This, without a doubt, is among the most punk rock things I have ever done.
For the first time in 45 years, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, a liturgical feast day commemorating not one but two martyrdoms. The holiday—in old English, hāligdæg, or “holy day”—has been scrubbed of its bloody beginnings and now finds its chief significance in market share and revenue generation. (Houston Asset Management tracked 2017’s Valentine sales as just over $18 billion in their yearly “Cost of Loving” index.)
With its declaration of human finitude and mortality, Ash Wednesday is always counter-cultural, but when it falls on the very day that chalky candy hearts proclaim “Be Mine,” “Wink Wink,” and (my favorite) “U R A 10,” the contrast is particularly stark.
Though I generally never turn down any excuse to eat chocolate, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the way we Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, with its trite mushiness and overcrowded restaurants (not to mention the inevitable pro- and anti-Valentine’s Day hot takes). So there’s a goth little rebel in me that relishes the opportunity to preside over such a radically alternative event. As a priest, I’ll remind my congregation that however much we ignore the human condition, we are, in fact, dust and to dust we shall return (Ecc. 3:20).
Themes of love and death are entwined chronologically in this “Ash Valentine’s Day,” and they’re deeply connected …