Most people who are Christ-followers have already figured it out. Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are the same day this year for the first time since 1945! This week, some of us will have to make a choice. Will Ash Wednesday trump Valentine’s Day? Will the food that we give up for Lent mean no Valentine chocolate? Or will it be chocolate-covered ashes?
For Christians, Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which is the forty-day period before Easter. During this time, we reflect upon the life and ministry of Jesus and journey with him to the cross. These forty days do not include Sundays, which from the earliest times were seen as “little Easters”.
The English word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon lencten, which refers to the lengthening of days that accompanies spring. In the early church, Lent was a time when converts were instructed in the Christian faith in preparation for baptism, but it was also a time of fasting and penitence for all believers. That’s why many of us “give up” something for Lent…like chocolate.
Valentine’s Day has a more confusing and nefarious history. We do know that the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13 to 15. Having drunk too much wine, naked Roman men would sacrifice a goat and a dog and then went around slapping women with the hides of the animals. This was supposedly done to enhance male fertility.
In addition, the Emperor Claudius executed two men by the name of Valentine on February 14 in two different years during the 3rd century a.d. The Catholic Church subsequently chose to observe their martyrdom on February 14, which we celebrate today as Valentine’s Day. Added to this complexity is the fact that in the 5th century Pope Gelasius I combined Lupercalia and the recognition of the “Saints Valentine” to create a day of drunkenness and love.
Lest you think Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day could not possibly have any connection with each other, consider this: the primary scriptures associated with Ash Wednesday refer to the heart. Through the symbolism of ashes, Ash Wednesday asks us to confront our own mortality at the same time as we are called to confess our sin before God and change our heart. The beginning of repentance is always the transformation of our heart, which is exactly what metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means.
“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Joel 2:12-13)
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
“We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you… In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.” (2 Corinthians 6:11, 13)
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:2)
Even John Wesley had a dramatic change of heart on May 24, 1738, when he went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and wrote in his diary, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Most changes of heart, however, are gradual, even imperceptible. We wake up one day and suddenly realize that we are not the same person we were last year, last month, or even last week. But we’re not sure how and when it happened.
This change of heart is God’s work as much as it is our own. It’s called grace. God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” God loves you so much that God is just waiting to give you a new heart through Jesus Christ, even when you haven’t earned it or don’t deserve it. Is your heart restless? Is there a sense of disquiet in your inward being? Are you disconnected with the source of your life? The good news is that you, too, can have a changed heart. All you have to do is say “yes”.
In the same way, both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday remind us that this new heart models the self-giving and self-emptying love of Jesus, a love that gives all without demanding anything in return. It’s like what a black sharecropper said when someone asked him about his Christian conversion. He replied, “Well, God knows I ain’t what I ought to be, but praise Jesus, I sure ain’t what I used to be, and I can hardly wait for what I’m gonna be.”
So what will it be this Wednesday? February 14 is a day for big business. Valentine’s Day sales reached $18.2 billion last year, and this year they’re predicted to total $19.6 billion. A box of Whitman’s chocolates for your sweetheart? Dinner at a nice restaurant with friends? A card for your mother? Heart-shaped candy or red and white Peeps for your children or grandchildren? Chocolate-covered ashes? Or the best heart of all: a changed heart.
For what it’s worth, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday will coincide again in 2024 and 2029. And, in a truly trivial anomaly, Ash Wednesday will be observed on the same day as Leap Day (February 29) in 2096 for the very first time in the history of the Christian Church. Unfortunately, I won’t be around to leap into Lent that day unless there are ashes in heaven. So be it! Amen!