Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a time of fasting in various ways and preparation for remembering and celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection on Good Friday and Easter. It’s also Valentine’s Day. They are odd bedfellows, but what they both have in common is that they’re both days I’ve had mixed feelings about in the past.
I grew up going to Ash Wednesday services and often giving things up for Lent, from TV and movies to chocolate. I really liked the services and appreciated the results of fasting, if I didn’t exactly enjoy it during the moment.
I also grew up enjoying Valentine’s Day. I loved making a pretty valentine collection box and reading all the valentines from my classmates, and I loved candy and the heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies my mom would make.
But as I got older, I started to wonder a little bit about both of those days. In college, I was surrounded by people from denominations that didn’t celebrate Lent at all, and I heard a lot of questioning about why Lent was even necessary -- if you were giving a bad habit up for Lent, maybe it just meant you should give it up all the time, it was a legalistic Catholic tradition, etc. I had had too many good experiences with Lent to be fully convinced by these arguments, but stressed out from school work and realizing how legalistic I had been at times in pursuing different kinds of fasting, I stepped back from Lent for a few years.
My opinions about Valentine’s Day started to be shaped by others, too. I became increasingly aware from high school onward that the “cool”/“mature” way to feel about Valentine’s Day was to be against it. It was a cheesy, consumeristic holiday pushed by Hallmark to sell cards and make single people feel bad about themselves. And cool girls who were actually in a relationship didn’t need to get a gift on a predetermined day, and if they wanted it, they were probably needy and kind of shallow. I now see a lot of defense mechanisms and internalized misogyny in these views, but there they were. And so my first married Valentine’s Day, I told Dave I didn’t want anything and bought us a romantic Men in Black DVD instead.
But at the end of the day, I felt sad that I didn’t have flowers or chocolate or some token of “Be Mine,” and I realized that, deep down, I did want to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Has it been used for capitalistic gain and caused pain via unmet expectations? Yes. But there’s a lot of good to be found in Valentine’s Day, too, and I still cared about it. The same can be said for Lent -- it’s a church season that has been used for legalistic, shame-ridden purposes. But at its heart, it’s for good, and I was always a little sad when I was part of churches that didn’t celebrate Lent and glad to be part of a church now that does.
Our pastor, in explaining why we follow the liturgical church calendar, points out that our lives are shaped by all kinds of calendars -- the school year, the sports seasons, different holidays, etc. -- and so it also makes sense for our lives to be shaped by a calendar that honors our faith. I’ve realized that I want to be shaped by the religious season of Lent. And when it comes to being shaped by secular calendars and days, I want Valentine’s Day to be one of them, too. Other people may feel differently, but that’s where I’m at, and it is disrespectful and dishonest to pretend otherwise. So I’ll take the strange juxtaposition of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday today, and look forward to the future juxtaposition this year of Easter and April Fool’s Day, although I think I’ll be okay not being shaped by the latter.