For the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, which is provocation for some interesting spiritual reflection. One commentator opined, “If the choice is between love or guilt,I choose guilt every time!” (Score one for Ashes) I note in the news feeds this week that according to some rather stern RC bishops in Europe and N. America, the admonition is to “celebrate your loved ones, but not with chocolate, steak or other food indulgences” (pun!)… Take your date to a fish fry, but not before getting your yearly dose of ashes.” (Score one for Guilt). For many Protestant churches that have a less rigorous Ash Wednesday observance,some have not offered ashes this year, saying, “No one will show up,” or, “We shouldn’t even ‘guilt’ people by offering a service, and making them choose.” (Score one for Chocolate).
Does it have to either or? Guilt or Love? Ashes or Chocolate? Is there something about this calendrical confluence that can point beyond the polarity? Or take us deeper, beneath the apparent conflict, to enrich both days, when they separate again in years to come?
Every year on Valentine’s Day, the curmudgeon in me wants to run a mile, away from what has, at its worst, become a superficial or guilt ridden homage to an unattainable romantic ideal barely recognizable as love.
For those who aren’t romantically attached, it’s a day of being excluded.
For those whose loves have died or moved on, it’s hard, sad, aching.
For those whose love is toughened by hardship, chocolates and roses seem insultingly vacuous.
All of a sudden, the option to choose to be marked with ashes – the sign of endings, mortality, – suddenly seems a more fitting way to mark love than with a chocolate kiss.
The legend of S. Valentine is worth sharing dusting off (oh the puns keep coming) on this confluence of his day with the Ash Day. He was killed, so the story goes, executed for his love of God, his love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his commitment to love and serve the poor. His love, for which he died wasn’t erotic love at all, but a wholehearted, pure-hearted, clean-hearted love for others, and especially those least likely to be able to reciprocate with steak, roses, or chocolate,
“Create in me a clean heart” sang the psalmist. (Ps 51). “Wash the ash from me, put my feet onto a path, that though hard, is paved with love. God’s love, our love for God, ourselves and others, especially those whose lives are marked more with ashes than our own.
As for me, today? I’ll mark my forehead with ashes, and I’ll take with gratitude the chocolate heart that is offered, and offer some myself. And I’ll remember that today – Valentine’s Day or Ash Wednesday – is not about guilt, but about the sort of love we want to spend our lives living for, and the sort of love I want to die still living.