What do you do when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day? This year, these two share a date … but seemingly very little else. In fact, recently, I saw a graphic floating around the Internet encouraging Catholics to reschedule their typical Valentine’s Day festivities for another day. (The natural suggestion, in my snarky mind, is to push it up a day to Fat Tuesday. Wherever and however you do Mardi Gras, you just might give yourself plenty to feel bad about and/or repent for the next day.)
The message is that you can’t celebrate both at the same time - or at least not in a typical fashion, it would seem. One is a sweet celebration of romance, replete with roses and chocolate. The other is a bitter reminder of our sinfulness, urging repentance and restraint, punctuated by the pronouncement that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. They say opposites attract, but I hardly think these two look like a match made in heaven, Tinder, or anywhere in between.
I think there is something, however, that these two starkly different holidays do share - and, at the risk of sounding impossibly trite, I think it’s love. They’re both about love. And the more I think about it, the more I think Ash Wednesday has something to teach Valentine’s Day - and vice versa.
It’s a fairly trivial claim that Valentine’s Day, as it’s typically commemorated, is about at least some part of love. Few would deny that the pleasurable “warm and fuzzies” are part of the story and, indeed, a positively good thing, especially in relationships with a significant other. Gift giving, romance, and the like have their place, even if we would admit it’s hardly the whole of love and that having a whole holiday about this particular aspect of love is something of a money grab meant to capitalize on feelings and desire.
But what is it about fasting and abstinence, repentance, and dirt on the forehead to remind you of death that is about love?
A turn to the Angelic Doctor is instructive here: St. Thomas Aquinas says love - be it the love between romantic partners, the love between parents and children, the love between friends, love of self (in some analogous way), and even the love between one and God - entails both the will for the good of the beloved and the will to be united with the beloved. (See Summa theologiae II-II q. 27 a. 2.) On this view, love is more than just the feels; love is more about the will - our faculty for choice and commitment.
There is something about those disciplines of Ash Wednesday (and Lent in general) that speak to strengthening that will for the true good and union with those we love - the resolve for making choices and keeping commitments that constitutes the often hidden, less glamorous, yet deeply important factors that differentiate loves that last from loves that are lusts.
True love requires sacrifice. Sometimes the true good for your beloved is not what you would personally prefer to obtain or to do, save for your love of them. Think of times you spend serving someone you love rather than doing what you want to do, or the times you spend money on things needed for others that you know you could have spent on yourself. To acknowledge and act on what is truly valuable for those we love is to recognize and affirm they are worthy of your good, be it in terms of time, talent, or treasure, whether or not you’d want to use it for something else. Sometimes union with your beloved is not convenient or pleasant. Time spent sitting with your beloved in grief, in sickness, in times of suffering - few, if any, relish these moments, yet how important is that closeness in a relationship in times of trouble? True lovers do these things even when they do not feel fantastic to do. The choice, the commitment, overrides any self-centered impulse. While cutting down on our caloric intake and becoming pescatarians for one day are not necessarily identical to the sacrifices we make for our loved ones, they are of a similar kind - choosing to go without one’s preference for the benefit of our beloved and our union. The disciplines of fasting and abstinence speak to a strengthening of our ability to choose what is good and right rather than what is convenient and comfortable, and this is central to true love.
True love does mean saying you’re sorry - never mind what the book and movie Love Story says. After all, you’re not God. That is to say, we are never totally adequate to plumb the depths of the mystery of another person perfectly. In the continual process of knowing and loving any other person, even with the best of intentions, we are bound to to step on boundaries, trip a wire, or trigger a response that belies our desire for their good and for the closeness of union. And this is to say nothing of our post-fall human proclivity to sin. In short, mistakes will be made - and in order to repair a union damaged by some fault of ours, we have to acknowledge that fault and seek forgiveness. A lack of repentance entails a lack of humility, and the lack of humility is pride. The prideful person ultimately only loves one person: themselves, since there is no room, let alone any real desire, for any other. The discipline of repentance implies that we hold ourselves accountable to the true and the good and acknowledge we will not always be correct about it; and thus it opens the space for the reality of another to enter into our lives.
True love requires a recognition of our mortality. I don’t mean that the motto of true love is “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.” Rather, it’s more like what Queen Elizabeth II said in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Love is hardly love without assuming the risk of deep pain when our beloved - friend, romantic partner, parent, child, etc. - is far from us, let alone lost. Now, it would be easy to avoid that pain by never loving at all, or at least never loving that deeply. As Simon and Garfunkel once wrote: “If I never loved, I never would have cried. I am a rock. I am an island … And a rock feels no pain, And an island never cries.” How many of us have felt something like that viscerally in the wake of being hurt in some relationship? It’s natural to want to avoid that kind of pain out of a sense of self-preservation. But avoiding that as a rule of living is also incompatible with love. How much could we say we desired good for any beloved when we are not aggrieved when some good, including the good of life itself, is withdrawn from them? How much could we say we desired union with any beloved when that union is rendered impossible in this life? Knowing grief is the cost of love, we must commit to assume the risk. Like the ashes on our foreheads, reminders of our mortality put our earthly lives and loves in perspective and underscore the depth of our commitment.
After all, who but God is our model of love? As St. Augustine says, the union between lover, beloved, and the love between them is one of the nearest models of the Trinity we can find in this earthly realm. (See De trinitate Book VIII, Ch. 10.) This love of God for us is said to be manifested in many ways in our history and in our lives, often with plenty of warm feeling, but especially the ways we prepare ourselves to celebrate through our Lenten practices: that love whereby “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Now that is love that involves sacrifice for the good of the beloved. God the Son humbled Himself to take on human flesh; and Jesus Christ, the sinless, spotless victim, was made the sin offering of repentance to God on our behalf. (See 2 Corinthians 5:21-22) And indeed this choice, this commitment, to His love of humankind was unto death. He did not let this cup pass from Him, knowing full well it would be possible for any of us to reject His sacrificial love and themselves die to life in Him, surely a pain among the many Jesus felt in his Passion.
So perhaps we could take some cues from Ash Wednesday and make this Valentine's Day a celebration of a deeper, truer love. Rather than focusing solely on treats and trinkets, on hearts and flowers, we can find a way to honor the more substantive ways we sacrifice for our beloved, and they for us. We can open ourselves to our beloved in vulnerability, acknowledging and asking forgiveness for our faults, truly opening the space for each other in our lives. We can recommit to our dual desires for goodness and union, accepting the risk of grief that comes with it.
And we could take some cues from Valentine’s Day for our Ash Wednesday and Lenten observances as well. Lent in general is not about performative self-hatred and punishment, as if somehow God will love us more if we look more sorry at this time of year and appear to be beating our breasts in lament while our hearts remain far from Him. It’s also not about what indulgence you can survive without for 40 days, like a superficial kind of detox. Fasting, abstinence, repentance, and wearing the ashes are relatively small exercises, yes; but, done well, they can help us to strengthen our vitally important capacity to choose and to commit to God and to our neighbors through times of difficulty.
So why not have our cake - even if it’s leftover King Cake, in moderation - and eat it too this Wednesday. Let’s celebrate a more meaningful love this Valentine’s Day, and let’s not let this Lent be too dismal an observance. Let this be a day and a season to choose love - for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for God.