Happy…what day?

I don’t typically post on Wednesdays, but I couldn’t let this pass without a comment. So, is it just me? Or does anyone else feel oddly about having Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day this year?

Hard to imagine a more striking contrast, especially when it comes to our understanding of love.

Valentine’s Day. A celebration of romantic love, with all the trappings that marketers want to convince you to buy to prove your love: candlelit dinners, flowers, candy, jewelry. Don’t get me wrong. I’m quite capable of being as sappy as the next person, and I’m not dissing anyone’s romantic plans. And if our culture wants to prescribe a day on which people are expected to tangibly show their love and appreciation, I’m all for it.

But then there’s Ash Wednesday, the day on which many Christians throughout the ages have begun their Lenten reflections on the mission, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are invited to enter into a season of letting the work and teaching of Jesus redefine our understanding of love. “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus told his disciples shortly before he was taken from them (John 15:13, CEB). Similarly, we have these well-known words from the apostle John:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. (1 John 4:7-10)

Neither Jesus nor John, of course, were talking about romantic love. God is love, not romance, and that love is expressed in costly and compassionate sacrifice on behalf of the beloved.

John is not calling everyone to be crucified or martyred. But if we were to understand the depth of God’s love and mercy toward us, what would change about the way we love one another? What sacrifices of time or attention would we give? Could we see them as only small gestures of gratitude, given in the name of the one who is love’s essence?

Enjoy whatever romantic tokens of the day you wish. Light the candles. Fill the house with flowers. And when the day is done, remember this: it all means little to nothing if love is absent the other 364 days of the year. Consider instead what Ash Wednesday invites us to ponder: the sacrificial, self-giving love of God demonstrated to us in the cross of Jesus Christ.

And having pondered deeply, love accordingly.