Today is Valentine’s Day, a day when billions of dollars will be spent on Hallmark cards, chocolate covered strawberries and expensive dinners in an attempt to show someone our undying love (or at least temporary desire).
It’s also Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people will don ash on their foreheads to remind themselves and others that “they are but dust”—mortal people whose life is a vapor in the span of human history—and that we all need to repent of the evil we’ve thrust into the world.
The juxtaposition of these two days is absolutely perfect. They seem to represent complete opposite sensibilities:
One demands you get dressed up. The other requires you to put ash on your face.
One calls for elaborate dinners and exorbitant desserts. The other ushers in a season of fasting.
One naively pretends that romantic love is perfect, completes us, and gives us all the feels. The other realistically predicts that you will die and you will meet your Creator in all of your imperfection.
One is a sometimes saccharine, completely commercialized attempt to remind us to show affection for the people in our lives. The other is a sacred rite meant to remind us to show humility and honesty about our bodily and spiritual limitations.
It’s no wonder why Hallmark has not profitably commercialized Ash Wednesday yet. Given the choice, the American people are (understandably) more likely to spend billions of dollars on love and sex rather than death and repentance.
But as different as they are, I think Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have something in common. They are rituals. And as rituals, if we go through the motions (even sincerely) one day per year but fail to live the life they are calling us into, then they are no more than chocolate boxes or greasy foreheads.
Valentine’s Day calls those of us in intimate relationships to be our best selves. It calls us to actually say nice things about our beloved, rather than assume, “Well, you know I love you. Right?” It calls us to take time to invest in the other person and make them feel valued. But if we do that once a year on February 14th, and not as a regular habit of life, our partners and spouses will see our Valentine’s day gifts for what they really are: Bribes meant to excuse us from pursuing them in love the rest of the year. Valentine’s Day cannot change our relationships. A Valentine’s Year could change them forever.
Ash Wednesday is a single day that calls us into a deep and sobering honesty about our selves. It invites us to think about the fact that we will die and therefore how we should live. It reminds us that as much as we criticize others for their actions, we too have infused our own brand of selfishness into our families, communities and world. In a culture like that of the U.S., which does everything it can to avoid and sanitize death, it radically proposes we look bodily, spiritual and social death square in the face and ask the hard questions about death and life.
But if we do that only once a year, 40 days before Easter, then it can only be a spiritual novelty or just one more futile attempt to earn God’s forgiveness (and our own) through an act of ritualized penance. And that, to a God of pure love and grace, is not worth much. He would rather you be genuinely changed, and one day of humility will not do that. But Ash Year could change your life.
This Ash Wednesday, whether you’re sporting the ashen cross on your forehead or not, I invite you to make each day this year a day of sober, honest reflection on our limitations. And may that honesty generate a freedom to receive God’s free love for you as simply that…genuinely FREE.