|A "love lock" window in Cinque Terre, Italy. photo credit: Bill Strom|
1945, 1934 and 1923, and prior to that, 1877.
Those are the most recent years that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s share the same day.
It’s not that the two have any historical connection but the overlap caught my attention.
Valentine’s Day has dubious and debatable roots. Some historians trace its origin back to Lupercalia, a Roman fertility festival in which goat hide was stripped and dipped in blood and then priests went about town gently slapping women and crops with the hide. Women welcomed the touch, believing the ritual brought increased fertility.
Also that day, women placed their name into an urn from which eligible bachelors drew. The two were matched for the year and many of these pairings reportedly ended in marriage.
Another possible root to the February 14th celebration connects to the execution of two men by Roman Emperor Claudius II - three years apart but both named Valentine - in the 3rd century A.D. The martyring of these men led to the Catholic Church honoring them with the creation of St. Valentine’s Day.
Not exactly the picture of roses and Purdy’s chocolates we know today.
A third folklore has it that a young Valentine became imprisoned and fell in love with the jailer's daughter. Prior to his death, he reportedly sent her a letter and signed off with a now familiar expression, “From your Valentine.”
Over the years, writers like Shakespeare sentimentalized the day, and exchanging cards grew in popularity in Europe. However, the full explosion of popularity for the “day of love” can be most attributed to Hallmark Cards in 1913. Nothing says “True love” like good old consumerism.
So what about the background of Ash Wednesday?
According to Catholic.org, “Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person's forehead, he speaks the words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’”
The ashes, placed in the shape of a cross on the forehead, also represent grief caused by our broken relationship with God. When Adam and Eve sinned, the perfect, intimate interaction between God and people, people and others, people with themselves, and people with creation dissolved. This state of ultimate disconnect created a chasm between God and humanity. Ash Wednesday calls individuals to penitential prayer for sins and to mourn the fallenness of all.
But that isn’t the end of the story.
Ash Wednesday also marks the beginning of Lent, the 46 days leading up to Easter Sunday, the grand culmination of God’s plan for reconciling people to himself. In an attempt to remind themselves of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus paid, many Christians opt to give something up for Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday.
While it feels a bit forced to draw too many conclusions about the unusual coming together of these two long-established traditions, there is one obvious overlap - love. And, it seems to me, this is also the place where the two diverge most radically.
Valentine’s Day, as expressed in North America, has a highly commercialized feel to it. Restaurants fill up, florists sell out, and Hallmark-type companies sell millions of red, heart-adorned cards. Some embrace the festivities with enthusiasm while others shrink under the heavy expectations the Valentine’s industry creates. Many singles view February 14th as the most lonely 24 hours on the calendar.
Is that true love?
Or does genuine love walk a path of sorrow and choose to willingly give up everything for the benefit of the other? Ash Wednesday begins the intentional acknowledging of the sacrifices Jesus made. He left His proximity with the Father and Holy Spirit in heaven to come live on earth as a perfect man. He experienced the fullness of humanity. Jesus died an agonizing death on a cross and rose from His grave three days later, providing a bridge for humanity to come back into right relationship with God.
A different kind of love, to be sure.
And perhaps that’s the most central issue here. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are expressions of the various kinds of love we can experience.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, uses four Greek words to unpack the kinds of love we experience.
Storge, or empathy connection, is the comfortable enjoyment we have with those who are most familiar, like family. This love is not something earned or measured by worth. Rather, it’s an expression of ease, knowing and being known. Lewis considered this affectionate love responsible for 9/10th of all solid and lasting human happiness (Lewis, 50, 66).
Philia, or friendship love, is one Lewis considered a higher level, less natural love, in the sense that it is a chosen love, not one required (Lewis, 70). Companionship, shared life experience, joy in being together are a few traits that characterize the love of friends.
Eros, or an erotic bond, according to Lewis, is the sexual passion born of being “in love” with one other. He further defined this as the distinction between wanting a partner versus a particular partner.
And finally, Lewis described agape love - God’s unconditional love, unchanged by time or circumstance, unmerited by its recipients, and unending. This is considered to be the highest form of love, one Christians are called to emulate and share with others, with God’s help.
Valentine’s Day, in general, calls society to indulge in eros love - a love infatuated simply with being in love. Give a card, a box of chocolates, an expensive piece of jewelry, all with the hopes of sparking a passionate connection. Valentine’s Day is the focus with little thought given to what happens on February 15th...or 16th, or the rest of the year.
But Ash Wednesday calls us out of our insatiable need for connectedness and into the overflowing agape love of God. This is a love that inspires self-sacrifice and endurance, a love that knows no boundaries.
As you reflect on the colliding of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, two very different and powerful calls to love, what type of love will you share this February 14th?
Shelaine Strom: Author and life-coach Shelaine Strom has seen life. Learning from her own professional and medical challenges, she has taught career and life transitioning for nearly twenty years and helped thousands of people get back up on their feet. Shelaine currently serves as the Manager for Education & Professional Development at FH Canada. Check out her blog.