Ash Wednesday is Valentine’s Day this year. An unusual juxtaposition of two very different holy days.
Valentine’s Day, now an extremely secular holiday, originally marked the day of the martyrdom of St. Valentine. There are several stories about different St. Valentine’s, but the most common one goes like this. During the reign of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in several bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius found it tough to get soldiers. He decided that it was because men did not wish to leave their wives and families in order to join the army. So Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. A Roman priest named Valentine defied Claudius’s order and continued to marry couples in secret. When his defiance was discovered, Valentine was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD. After his death, Valentine was named a saint.
Ash Wednesday is a day focused on confession and mortality. As ashes are imposed on our foreheads, the words “Remember that you dust and to dust you shall return” are spoken. We are reminded that we are mortal and that all things on earth will one day be no more. Hence, we are to put our trust in God, the only One who is eternal. And God, in turn, has promised to be faithful and to show us love and mercy that we can neither comprehend nor deserve.
On further reflection, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are not so different. For although Ash Wednesday focuses on our sin and mortality, it also is a day to remember the eternal God who loves us with a love surpasses all human understanding. So we could rightfully say that Ash Wednesday = Love.