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Ash Wednesday 2018 is February 14, the beginning of Lent, a season when Christians traditionally reflect on sin and mortality. February 14 is also Valentine’s Day, when we Americans spend our hard-earned money on overpriced candy, cheesy greeting cards, and expensive dinners celebrating romance and sexual love. The last time Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day was 1945! While it’s unusual for Ash Wednesday to be on Valentine’s Day, it actually makes quite a bit of sense, for at least three reasons.
First, if there is any area of modern life where sin has grabbed the reins, it’s in the area of romance and sexual love. Our sex-obsessed culture can seemingly imagine nothing more interesting, more entertaining, or more defining than who we may think we want to have sex with at any given moment. I don’t mean to downplay sex and romantic love, but sometimes it seems as if our whole society has gotten stuck in a kind of perpetual adolescence, where sex is all we think about. Lent is a good time to take stock of our lustful obsessions, our behaviors, and our deeply sinful attitudes.
Second, it’s just worth remembering that the man for whom Valentine’s Day is named—St. Valentinus—was not so much concerned with the love between two human beings as between human beings and God. Most of what is said today about St. Valentinus is legend, much of it very late and almost all of it secular. In fact, all that is really known about St. Valentinus is that he was a devout Christian, perhaps a priest or bishop, who lived near Rome sometime before 496 AD and that he was killed on February 14 for his love of God. "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes."
Third, and finally, St. Valentinus would be the very first to say this Ash Wednesday 2018 that what is really important for us to remember is not St. Valentinus’ love of God, but God’s love for St. Valentinus, and for all of us who call upon God through Christ. Psalm 51:1 is perhaps the Bible verse most associated with Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. It begins: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This Lent, as you and I reflect on our sin and mortality—our lusts and obsessions—we will do so in light of God’s love and mercy.
That awareness of God’s love and mercy will run through everything we say and do this Lent—every song, every prayer, every sermon, every service. Like St. Valentinus—like King David himself, whose notorious sexual sin was the immediate setting of Psalm 51—Christians will humbly and sincerely confess our sin to God even as we gratefully praise him for his steadfast love to us in Christ. May I be the first to wish you a blessed Ash Wednesday and a very happy St. Valentine’s Day!