It seems a little strange that, due to the way the calendar works this year, today is not only Valentine’s Day, devoted to celebrating love, but Ash Wednesday, the day of fasting that opens the season of Lent. How are you supposed to celebrate the two together?
Valentine’s Day is a big deal in North America, a very commercial enterprise. It occurs to me I haven’t seen anything about it in Germany, though admittedly my exposure to commercialism is extremely limited given the lack of shopping options in town. I’m not sure if it is Lent itself that is a big deal, but Monday was a holiday (Shrove Monday?) and there is a festival Fastnacht, that started a couple of weeks ago and continues for another week or so depending on your location. I’ll have more to say about that, probably later this week, but if you can’t wait, imagine New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festival or Rio’s Carnival (neither of which I have attended) with a darker spiritual side. Turns out the people dressed as animals I saw a few weeks ago were getting an early start on Fastnacht.
It is tradition that you give something up for Lent. It is a sombre time of preparation for Easter, a time when you are supposed to do penance and fast to some extent. A popular form of Lenten fasting is to give up something you enjoy, some luxury such as chocolate or alcohol. It is observed by many Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but not as much by those of the non-liturgical variety.
I had a friend, an Anglican priest, whose take on Lent was a bit different. He wanted his congregation to be vibrant in their faith, and though he had a love of tradition and liturgy he did not encourage his parishioners to fast or give something up for Lent. He told me he wanted them instead to add something to their lives.
His suggestion was that for the 40 days of Lent they should increase their Bible reading or increase the amount of time spent in prayer. Instead of focusing on a ritual and denial (which can have spiritual blessings) they should focus on getting to know God on a more intimate, more personal basis. It is easy to give something up for a short period of time. It is much harder to build a relationship, but he encouraged them to make the effort. That made sense to me.
Valentine’s Day is not a day when people think of giving something up. The focus is more on human love, acquiring it, expressing it, keeping it. Lent is about being less focused on self; Valentine’s is, in some ways, perhaps the opposite. Lent is a commemoration of selfless love, remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who didn’t have to die, but chose to do so out of love.
Maybe that is the intersection of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Both are about love; it is just that the way they are expressed is different.