Love and Repentance: When Ash Wednesday Falls on Valentine’s Day

2/5/2018

Love involves sacrifice and repentance. A woman prays after having ashes placed on her forehead during an Ash Wednesday service. Image by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Image by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Love and repentance: When Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day

By Polly House

Dentist appointments, vacations, work or worship — our calendars tell us when and what we have to do. They help us avoid conflicts. But, what about when Ash Wednesday, the fasting-and-repentance start of Lent, and St. Valentine’s Day, the celebration of romance and chocolates, show up on the same day, Feb. 14? How do we reconcile those on our church calendar?

A starting point comes from The Book of Worship as it addresses conflicts between celebrating a special day in the church year, such as Ash Wednesday or Easter, and a “special Sunday” approved by General Conference or special day from the secular calendar. The Book of Worship is clear that the special day in the church year takes precedence although the other may also be observed.

Since some challenges can become opportunities, how can the faith community celebrate public repentance and reconciliation this year while the popular culture celebrates romantic love?

A little history

Stories of the origin of St. Valentine’s Day frequently include accounts of the martyrdom of a priest named Valentinus or Valentine. Roman emperor Claudius II had nullified engagements and banned new marriages in order to increase the size of his army. Valentine defined the ban and continued marrying couples until he was discovered and killed on Feb. 14, 270 A.D.

Another priest, also named Valentine, was also martyred on Feb. 14, in a different year for helping imprisoned Christians. In some traditions, he may have healed his jailer’s daughter before being martyred. In others, he and the jailer’s daughter fell in love — before he was executed. In any case, the idea of risk and martyrdom for the sake of honorable love replaced a more ancient Roman festival with a new name, purpose and a feast day on the church calendar.

Centuries later, Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized St. Valentine’s Day. Sweethearts began exchanging love notes on Feb. 14, in medieval times.

Ash Wednesday, the official start of the 40 days of Lent (Sundays are not counted), falls on Feb. 14 this year. As they are marked with ashes — a traditional sign of repentance, mourning and mortality — during an Ash Wednesday service, many Christians start a time of intentional fasting and reflection. Abstaining from meals or favorite foods or giving up some particular pleasure during Lent has long served to remind people to mourn the pain they have caused God and to reflect and prepare for a transformed life.

God’s sacrificial love

So how do worship planners address the conflict between the joy of St. Valentine’s Day and the somberness of Ash Wednesday? Or do they?

“Rather than looking for a bridge or a compromise, Ash Wednesday for us may be better framed as a contrast,” said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church. “Some in the wider culture may be celebrating the wonder of sexual attraction and physical love and the feelings of immortality it often brings,” he added. “The church on this day observes the love of God, which calls us to self-denial, fasting and repentance in the face of our own denials of God's love in our lives and the reality of our mortality. If Valentine belongs in [an Ash Wednesday observance], it is precisely as a martyr.”

In a Facebook conversation, several United Methodist clergy from around the United States discussed how they would focus on Ash Wednesday while acknowledging Valentine’s Day.

“To ignore the secular would seem out of touch; besides, why not redeem it? The story of St. Valentine (whether accurate or not) is one of sacrifice, of witness and of a changed life. Sounds pretty Lenten to me,” said The Rev. Cindy Watson, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Wichita, Kansas. She also suggested beginning the service by singing “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, oh my soul.”

“We are doing worship stations that evening, “said the Rev. Rebecca Duke-Barton, pastor of Colquitt (Georgia) United Methodist Church. “We will have stations set up around the sanctuary with themes of repentance and love. That is our biggest time for children, so it will be time for families to worship together. We have eight different stations. For example, they will be able to write a loving note to someone, write out their commitment to a Lenten discipline and receive ashes.”

The Rev. Brian Cornell, pastor of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, in Trinity, North Carolina, said, “A real act of love, as is mentioned in (1 Corinthians 12-13), is absolutely marked with the ashes of repentance, gratitude and sacrifice. Perhaps this is an opportunity to talk about true sacrificial love.”

Some of the other responses to the request for “creative worship/ministry ideas out there to possibly weave these two threads?” suggested the positioning of the dates offered an opportunity to reclaim what St Valentine was all about.

One commenter sees “so much potential to connect with a world that is hurting. Folks need to know what real love looks like. I think that’s in Christ!”

Another said, “I recognize for many it is important to celebrate the idea of love. So what would it look like to take the idea of love and show the reality of what love is?”

However you bring attention to Feb. 14 this year, remember that the sacrifice of Christ and the devotion of His people are examples of the greatest love of all.