[Episcopal News Service] Ashes smeared on a forehead in the shape of a heart? Candy conversation hearts that proclaim, “Remember U R Dust?” Apparently, that’s what might happen when Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day.
How to manage this clash of calendar? Lean into it or lean away from what priestly blogger called “the precipice of the cute”? Find a way to connect romantic love and God’s love of creation? Find something in between?
First, how did Hallmark get pitted against holy this year? It’s by the coincidence of the secular calendar and the Christian church’s calculation of the date of Easter. And this year is a rare occasion. It last happened in 1945 (preceded by 1934 and 1923) and will happen again in 2029.
Here’s how it works: Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Lent is 40 days (to mirror the 40 days Jesus is said to have fasted in the wilderness) plus the six Sundays surrounding those days. Thus, Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins, is 46 days before Easter Sunday.
By all that is mathematical and calendrical this year that means Ash Wednesday is Feb. 14, that day known for celebrating romantic love with hearts and flowers and chocolates, the go-to substance that some people to give up for Lent.
This year, Lent is bookended by the convergence of secular and religious holidays. Easter falls on April 1, April Fool’s Day. (For those thinking ahead, or looking behind, and calculating, note that when Easter falls on April 1 in leap years, Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 15.)
While we are plumbing the depths of ancient church formulas, there is more history to consider. St. Valentine, a third-century bishop in Rome, is believed to have been martyred on Feb. 14. The rest of his story is so dim that ecclesiastical commemoration of him varies. He is not part of the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints, but his martyrdom is remembered on Feb. 14 by members of the Church of England and by Lutherans. The Roman Catholic Church removed him from its calendar in 1969. Roman Catholics and Episcopalians mark Feb. 14 by honoring the monk known as Cyril and his brother, the bishop Methodius, for their conversion of Slavic people of Eastern Europe in the ninth century.
Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to have connected St. Valentine with romantic love in the Middle Ages. His poem, The Parlement of Foules, is thought to commemorate a royal marriage in 1382 by describing a conference of birds that meet to choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day.
That’s how we got here. Now, what to do?
Among those who have leaned into the coincidence, at least early on, was Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston. On Feb. 1, its Facebook page offered seven “Valentines” that mashed up the two days. The post invited people who “might need to explain to your special someone why you’re spending the day in fasting and penitence rather than on a date” to share them.
They were shared 417 times but played to decidedly mixed reviews there and on other Facebook pages where they were discussed. They also generated strong discussion about what the intersection of the two days might mean. Some heartily endorsed them. Some saw them as a way to explain Ash Wednesday to what one person called “non-liturgical folk.” Others called them, in the words of one person, “too cutesy.”
Trinity replied to many of the comments, especially noting those who found them jarring on a day that speaks of death and grief. “We’re sorry if our lighthearted post has made things harder for you. Indeed, this is partly why we’re glad Ash Wednesday falls on the 14th this year: because we don’t know any better place to take our griefs and fears than to church. Wishing you and yours a peaceful and holy Lent,” said one of the replies.
Trinity recently announced its Ash Wednesday services on Facebook in a different way.
There will not be any heart-shaped ashes on the foreheads of folks who come to Trinity Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the Rev. Andrew Gerns, the rector and also the blogger who warned of the precipice of the cute in a post about the day’s challenges of the calendar. He told Episcopal News Service that he has talked about the shape of ashes to come the last two Sundays, while acknowledging “there will be people taking their true love out to dinner with a smudge of ash on their head.”
“This is no time to be cute,” was how Gerns titled his blog post on the calendar coincidence. However, he told ENS he is “OK with playing with the world’s symbols and turning them on their head” but said his warning is “a call to be intentional and to be aware of that tension.”
He hearkens to Charles Williams, a founding member of the Inklings of the 1930s and ’40s (along with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, among others). Williams suggested that romantic love could give human beings a glimpse of divine love. Williams, Gerns said, believed that the interaction between people who are in love can lead them into a deeper understanding of the interactions that are inherent in the sacramental life. Gerns said that Williams was rebelling against the idea that sensuality was essentially sinful.
Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s falling on the same day “shows that strange relationship where Christians live in God’s time and the world’s time at the same moment,” Gerns said. “The gift of the confluence is that it allows us to have that discussion, but it would be very easy for us to just make it into a gimmick and then cut the conversation short.”
It would be “a missed opportunity” not to acknowledge that the two days coincide this year, the Rev. Adrienne Hymes, chaplain and director at St. Anselm’s Episcopal Chapel Center at the University of South Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times.
“Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul and with all of our mind. And we are to love our neighbors as ourselves,” said Hymes. “So, Valentine’s Day this year serves as a wonderful bridge between the sacred and the secular.”
The Rev. Justin Lindstrom, dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, told his local newspaper that the day could be about paying attention to one’s relationship with God, just as Valentine’s Day calls people to attend to their romantic relationships.
“I personally think the couples should observe the discipline of Ash Wednesday through the fasting and abstinence the church asks, as well as reserve a time for each other and spend a special moment to delight in each other. If it doesn’t seem quite right to be feasting and dancing on Ash Wednesday, then perhaps they might set aside a ‘date night’ and just spend time together, as a couple being a couple,” he said.
“I’m not one to give relationship advice, but it seems to me that being creative with their time might be the greatest invitation to recognize and celebrate the quality of the relationship they already have.”
The Rev. Michael Durning, canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, told the Tampa Bay paper that Ash Wednesday should not be regarded as completely solemn. The Episcopal Church’s prayers for Ash Wednesday are, he said, “hopeful in the power that God has come to restore us and reconcile us to one another.” The two days coincide in the God of love, he added.
During said he suspects that a planned Ash Wednesday retreat by a local Episcopal school will no doubt feature heart-shaped candy and Valentine’s Day cards. “I don’t see any harm in that,” he said. “You certainly don’t want to convey the message that Ash Wednesday is about feeling bad. It’s a day of introspection and that ultimate feeling of hope.”
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.