By Matt Ainsley
Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, two seemingly disparate holidays, take place this year on the same day. The former is usually full of merriment, the latter mourning. One is celebrated with food and drink; the other is commemorated by abstaining from the same. Valentine’s Day is for lighthearted fun. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is deadly serious. As the first day of Lent it has the most serious of all purposes: the salvation of the world wrought in and through the Church. The contrast is stark.
But on second thought, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday may have some things in common: In the book of Revelation, Jesus sends seven letters to his beloved, his bride, the Church. In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, our Lord first commends the Ephesians for their endurance, their holiness, and their fidelity to the truth. But then he writes, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4, NASB).
Valentine’s Day is all about love. But so is Lent, and even more so, for Lent is all about returning to your first love: Jesus Christ our Lord.
Love is at the heart of the Christian life. Love is foundational. The greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27, ESV). Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV).
Have I left my first love? For the Christian, there is no question more fundamental during this season of penitence. Lent is a God-given opportunity to recognize the ways in which our love has gone amiss, the ways in which we fail to live up to the greatest commandment. We examine ourselves — an investigation empowered and, in fact, conducted by the Holy Spirit — and cry out with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24, KJV).
We pray during the Litany of Penance on Ash Wednesday: “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 267). Lent, in terms of the disposition of heart, is sitting in that prayer, praying it in slow motion.
How, we wonder, do we love God with our strength? Christianity is holistic and incarnational. In Christianity, matter matters. Yes, from dust we came and to dust we shall return, but from dust we shall also rise in the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. And as St. Paul tells us, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So how do we love God with our bodies, that is, with all our strength? Well, being in church on Ash Wednesday is a good start. We kneel, bow, speak, sing, make the sign of the cross, and are imposed with ashes. We marshal our strength in deference to and adoration of the Triune God. We show our love.
God shows us his love too. It may be a stretch to call the letter of Christ to the Christians at Ephesus a love letter, especially if you mean something soaked in sentimentality. Jesus’ message to them is hardly warm and fuzzy. It’s not something you would put on a candy heart. But it is nonetheless loving. It is because Christ loves them that he not only praises but rebukes and warns.
It is on account of love that Christ writes, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5, ESV). It wouldn’t have been loving for Christ to flatter the Ephesians as they walked unimpeded on the road that leads to death. He loved them by calling them back to life. He loves us by calling us to the observance of a Holy Lent.
Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, two seemingly disparate holidays, are observed on the same day. When we look carefully, we may find this convergence not incidental, awkward, or inconvenient but rather providential, apt, and illuminating. Moreover, this convergence is an opportunity to redeem the time, to mark our days in accordance with the kairos of the kingdom, and perhaps to begin to realign our celebration of Valentine’s Day with its Christian roots. (After all, St. Valentine was a bishop and martyr, one who gave his life because he loved God above all else.)
These holidays observed together give us an occasion to ponder the love of God in connection with Lent and therefore to have our understanding of love shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ instead of the spirit of the age.
Both holidays afford us the opportunity to examine what and whom we love, and to what degree we love them. Both holidays are epistolary: On Valentine’s Day, people often give cards and send letters to those they love. On Ash Wednesday, Christ writes to his beloved, the Church, calling her back to holiness and back to the way that leads to life.
Both holidays are about love, and Lent supremely so. Let us return today to our first love.
The Rev. Matt Ainsley is assistant rector of Church of the Ascension, Orlando.