The convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day has caused more than a few theological questions to pop up among my Facebook and Twitter acquaintances. Is it okay to give your beloved chocolate? How about taking them to dinner? Is it weird to have sex with your spouse on one of the most somber days of the church year? Most people in my circles are either trying to finagle romance around the foods they are giving up or have decided to delay their season of sacrifice until Thursday.
After all, isn’t Valentine’s Day antithetical to Lent? On the one hand: teddy bears as big as Great Danes! Couples’ massage specials! Grossing out your kids by kissing in front of them! On the other hand: an altar without flowers. Hymns without Hallelujahs. A wrapped cross, veiled from sight.
Clearly, this won’t work. You can’t cook a gourmet feast on a fast day. You can’t buy a diamond with a spirit of poverty. How can we display effusive love for our partners for all the world to see without gifts, cards, or flowers? How can we be romantic when we are supposed to be praying in a spirit of solemn repentance? Out of all the days Ash Wednesday could possibly fall, why did it have to be Valentine’s Day? Couldn’t we just push our season of fasting and prayer back by a week this year?
No. Absolutely not. This was no mistake, no accident of the calendar. In this season, when so many are feeling distant from the love of others and the love of God, this concurrence of holidays is a gift to us.
Yes, love is majestic and beautiful. Love is my husband having flowers and fresh-from-the-dryer socks ready for me when I get home from an absolutely rotten day. Love is a text containing only a single heart emoji. Love is cradling our 7-month-old in the bed between us, trying not to cry with joy that God has blessed us with this perfect child. Love is mercy and resurrection and all the beauty that Christ has given us.
But love is not only Easter, with its glorious celebration of life eternal. Love is not even Good Friday, when death claims a victory (no matter what Nicholas Sparks has to say about the tragic romance of holding your beloved’s hand as you depart for Heaven together). Love‒real, lifelong love‒is 40 days in the desert. It's walking barefoot on hot sand, facing down starvation and heat stroke and the temptation to give in. Love is reading over my husband’s resume to see if there’s some way we can finally get him a full-time job, so he can quit the other three. Love is him holding me as I sob until I can’t draw breath over yet another test that says we’re not having a baby yet. It's sackcloth and ashes and wiping the tears from one another's faces. Love is fighting every single day to sacrifice for and shore up and call forth this person that God has given to you, both as they are and as you know they can be. Every day is Lent when you love as the Lord calls us to love: every day an act of humility, repentance, and sacrifice.
That kind of love is only incompatible with Valentine's Day because it can't be summarized in a kitschy couplet on the inside of a greeting card.
Skip the chocolate this year. There are better gifts. Look at your beloved in the candlelight and try to see who God has called him to be, not whether he remembered to iron his shirt before your date. Instead of a zirconia tennis bracelet, give your sweetheart your undivided attention while she shares the desires of her heart. Lean close together, hold one another, and seek spiritual intimacy. Give one another your ashes. Get down to the real work of being holy partners, wholly together.