Written by:
Abigail Parker Herrera (SCJ)

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#ValentAshWednesDay

by Abigail Parker-Herrera

Forget the battle of “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas”.  In February, we will have the first of only 3 showdowns that occur in this century: Ash Wednesday vs. Valentines Day.  For churches celebrating St. Valentines Day as a feast day, this battle was decided centuries ago: They called it for Ash Wednesday.  Culture, on the other hand, probably remains open to debate. I mean, when the clash of the two only occurs three times in a century…does Ash Wednesday get an automatic win because it comes out of nowhere to claim the 14th of February or does Valentines Day, the work horse of the 14th take it’s usual position? Obviously it’s not a battle…culturally we have a clear winner! Who is going to choose a fast over a feast??

When I read articles from pastors lamenting Ash Wednesday losing to Valentines and our culture’s inability to engage the holy, I wonder why we so often shift to the language of winners and losers? Does the church have to be “right” and the culture “wrong” when our High Holy Days and Holidays collide? Are there places of intersection that help us see God in the culture around us and help those outside of our church rituals meet Christians in a new way?

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day and the church’s celebration of the beginning of a holy fast for Lent can go together at all.  One swears off chocolate, wine, feasting, and decoration; the other asks for lavish meals, gifts, gaudy red outfits, and a lot of kissing.  One celebrates God’s eternal love for us even when we don’t deserve it, and the other revels in romantic love between partners.  One relentlessly points out our failures as a people and our need for God’s grace, while the other asks us to lift up what we love about the people in our lives, perhaps asking us to overlook their flaws. 

Long-standing church traditions and holy rituals often invite us to turn inward and away from the surrounding culture.  This can be a good thing, but what happened when our in-house traditions become the primary way we connect with God? It can cause the church to become judgmental of the people we view as outsiders, the very people we are called to love with the grace God gives us! Engaging in our culture during the holiest seasons of the year can open our eyes to God’s work around us, allowing us to join in.

A good way to figure out how to meet the culture in its holy seasons is to start by listing the good things about the cultural activity in question.  Often church people begin with the negative aspects of a culture.  There are negative aspects to celebrating things like Valentine’s Day, but starting from a negative place doesn’t help us become excited about points of intersection.

What are some of the good things our culture celebrates on Valentine’s Day?

  • Love: romantic love, familial love, and the love between friends
  • The gifts of the people all around us
  • The ability to make time and space in our lives and calendars and bank accounts for the people we feel are important to us
  • The hope of relationships growing stronger
  • Marriages
  • Passion
  • The bodies God created for us—bodies that want to connect in physical intimacy with a partner
  • Beauty
  • Our need for relationships

There are many places in this list where Ash Wednesday fits.  Ash Wednesday certainly names our need for relationship. It reflects our struggle within our bodies to both ignite the fire of passion and dampen it when that fire burns inappropriately. The hope God has in us, and God’s relentless pursuit of us, is like a passionate, unreasonable lover willing to forgive our flaws. Ash Wednesday can make us soberly aware of the fact that life has an end, and so we must make time and space for the people and things that matter.

The question I’m pondering for my church setting is: If we are beginning a time of fasting to meditate on God’s love on a day when many people are being called to feasting in a celebration of love, how can our fast produce more love in the world?  We could:

  • Leave Valentines for people, reminding them of their worth.  I have an artist friend who spent weeks making beautiful hand made cards to leave all over the city.
  • Pick up the tab somewhere:  buy the dessert at a restaurant and people could have chocolate and strawberries for free because your church believes in celebrating love
  • Be generous and loving in return.  If someone gives you chocolates or wants to treat you to something special on Valentines Day don’t give them a long lecture about how they are stepping on your religious toes.  You will make them feel bad for their generosity which is antithetical to what Ash Wednesday is about.  Say thank you, accept their gift, and invite them into something that is meaningful to you.
  • Invite people into our traditions in meaningful ways.  There are a lot of people who are feeling lonely on Valentines Day.  Have a simple meal that evening on your own, or at the church and invite people for whom bread, soup, and other people would feel like a celebration.
  • Celebrate marriages.  A lot of people get married on Valentines Day.  Could your church go to the court house and give small gifts to newly married couples?
  • Celebrate marriages and partnerships.  A lot of people contemplate ending their marriages on Valentine’s Day.  Could your church invest in counseling services or give people information about services available for reduced rates?
  • Celebrate parents and host a “parent’s night out” the weekend before or after Valentine’s Day or even on Valentine’s Day itself.
  • Celebrate single people. A lot of people contemplate their feelings of loneliness and unworthiness on Valentine’s Day.  Could your church invest in counseling services for people feeling depressed and lonely, and offer information about these reduced rates on Valentine’s Day?
  • Offer something for people exploring romantic love; tickets to a movie or performance, safe rides, favorite date ideas.

What are some ideas you have for making our fast day a feast day?

What can you do on Valentines Day with ash on your forehead and a box of chocolates in your hands?