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Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: Why they're the perfect couple

Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema
Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

Again this year, we experience a historic convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, which only happens a few times a century. It happened in 1923, 1934, 1945, and 2018. It will happen again in 2029, but then not again until the next century.

In 2018, I spent the first Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday of my life in the hospital with a Catholic friend undergoing a second-trimester miscarriage. Though Anglican Protestants like me are not allowed to take the Eucharist with Catholics, we are allowed to receive the imposition of ashes together, and I was ever grateful for the Catholic priest on call at the hospital who bestowed the ashes upon us both. In both Anglican and Catholic, and other liturgical traditions, as ashes are imparted on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the pastor or priest cites scripture: “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” That was never more potent than when holding a dead child in my arms. And yet, we had hope, we had love, we had the comfort of the Savior who overcame death. And my friend named her baby girl Valentine.

Through this experience, I’ve come to meditate on this odd calendar crossover that so many see as a conundrum. How can a day of fasting, repentance, humility, and suffering be combined with the gifts, food, and love-making of Valentine's Day? I’ve come to see the two days being one as its own marriage of sorts, serving as a reminder of the reality that true love, in wanting the good for another, often requires suffering. Love that goes beyond the superficial is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the beloved. Is that not ever more true in Christ himself, showing a willingness to suffer for the sake of the beloved?

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So perhaps it isn’t so odd for a day of love and a day of suffering to converge.

When we return to the origin of these holidays, we can even further appreciate their perfect harmony.  Valentine’s Day, like Christmas and Easter, has become a commercialized fraction of its former spiritual glory, its original Christian meaning lost to our generation. If you asked the average person on the street, or even the average Christian in a pew, few may know the origin of Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine, an early Christian born in 226 in the Roman empire, believed in and performed Christian marriage at a time when it was extremely uncommon. The surrounding culture was caught in polygamy, and the oppressive state, hungry for soldiers over not love-struck boys, issued a repressive edict forbidding marriage altogether.  St. Valentine refused this unjust edict by marrying Christian couples in secret, for which Valentine was arrested and eventually martyred. The legend around his life states that while awaiting execution in prison, St. Valentine deeply befriended and miraculously healed a blind girl in prison, writing her a note just before he died that was signed “Your Valentine,” the very first Valentine from which we get our note-writing tradition today.Thus, the “real story” of the first Valentine reminds us to honor marriage when society doesn’t, while simultaneously reminding us that true love is just as true and valuable when shared among friends and mentors, not merely romantic couples.

Like Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday is a historically Christian holiday meant to invite the faithful into remembrance of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, by ushering in 40 days of Lent in which Christians prepare for Easter.  On Ash Wednesday, we face the reality of who we really are: selfish, weak humans destined for death, who cannot give real love and life on our own. Yet once we receive it from the source of love — God Himself, we can then fully love others. We are reminded of Christ’s example of perfect love, a love that was willing to die for His Bride. Sex and marriage, for the Christian, is a sign of Christ’s love for His bride, and of our need for the ultimate pleasure of our heavenly home. I find great comfort in the opportunity to attend church and receive ashes as I am reminded of my mortality apart from Christ.

St. Valentine knew the culture and the state were getting it all wrong when they forbade marriage. Today we also face misunderstandings of love and marriage. Oddly, a culture that also devalues marriage in favor of love-making without commitment, and glamorizes sex without sacrificial love. We want a “Valentine’s Day” without the martyr St. Valentine, a love without suffering, sex without commitment. Ash Wednesday is the perfect remedy for our disease. We must come to a humble place of weakness and need so that we can be lifted up to a place of resurrection and restoration.

For all of us, may this Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day serve as a call to repent of our perverted views of love, may it be an opportunity to embrace God as our true Valentine, and may our remembrance of death lead us to contemplate our need for eternal life in Christ.

Chaney Mullins Gooley is passionate about forming a culture of life and works for Her PLAN, a project of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America that connects and grows a comprehensive, life-affirming safety net of supports for babies and their mothers. Chaney lives with her husband Patrick in Alexandria, VA with their cat Amy, named after Amy Coney Barrett.

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