It is precisely the sparkle of Valentine’s Day, though, that has some Christians a little concerned about its convergence with Ash Wednesday this year. Whereas Valentine’s Day relies upon mass produced glitz to highlight romance — the most plastic version of love, Ash Wednesday has traditionally utilized ashes — a symbol of death — and fasting to express our penitence and consider our mortality.
The two days don’t seem to have a lot in common. And really, the thought of feasting on cheerfully bright candy hearts while our foreheads are marked with the gritty ashes of a fast isn’t all that exciting.
Every February I take some time to reminisce about my husband’s and my Valentine’s Day engagement. I reflect upon the origins of our relationship and how it has changed since that night. Those early years, including our wedding, were full of the kind of sparkle that epitomizes Valentine’s Day.
The reality, though, is that our shared experiences since then — like the exhaustion brought on by parenting, financial struggles, illnesses, and the deaths of loved ones, have done more to fortify our relationship than romantic dinners and voluptuous bouquets ever could. In fact, it recently struck me, as I thumbed through our wedding album while my husband massaged my feet — a task he does nightly to soothe the pain brought on by Rheumatoid Arthritis — that the aspects of our marriage that most strengthen our love for one another are far more ashy than sparkly.
Perhaps adding ashes to a day devoted to sparkle is exactly the grounding Valentine’s Day has been missing. Love is a gritty endeavor. When we enter into any relationship that relies upon love to thrive, we must do so with the understanding that there might be as many lows as highs, that we might lose as much as we gain, that we might fast as much as we feast.
On Ash Wednesday, we read from the prophet Isaiah,
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
We are assured that God’s presence strengthens us when we are most in need. Whether our sparkle is fresh or hidden beneath ashes, God continually delivers both forgiveness and hope — a message we need to hear as profoundly on Valentine’s Day as on Ash Wednesday.