Remember O Valentine…
…that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.
I’m really looking forward to sending those cards out this Ash Wednesday!
I’m not sure where Aussies stand on the whole Valentine issue. It’s a fairly—not hugely, but fairly—big deal here in the Land of Hot Dogs and the President with Ridiculous Hair.
When I was a kid, Valentine’s Day was the day of year in which elementary school kids were treated to the worst slew of terrible puns in a single day. We got little cards with pictures of trains captioned “I choo choo choose you, Valentine!” or with a baker saying, “Won’t you be my true loaf, Valentine?” or with a sugar cube saying, “You’re sweet, Valentine!”
I can’t remember if there was a school policy requiring that each kid had to give a Valentine to every other kid so that all were equal or if they still had a laissez faire policy of letting losers like me only get cards from kids who liked them, thereby making clear who was popular and who was a loser like me. But since I don’t recall trauma and rejection as the dominant emotion associated with Valentine’s Day, my guess is that we had some kind of Equality Policy in place. (It wasn’t till I got to high school that February became Romantic Trauma Month as Sadie Hawkins Dances—where the girl asked the guy—came into play and reminded me for four years that no girl would touch me with a barge pole. Fun!)
After I got out of high school and into college, I generally met Valentine’s Day with a sense of gloom, as I met all of February. It was winter. With the exception of President’s Day, there were no holidays with happy associations, and even President’s Day was just a reminder that after that one day off it would be one gray slog till Spring Vacation in April. Being neither Catholic nor Christian, I knew nothing of Lent or Easter. And Valentine’s Day was just there to remind me of Sadie Hawkins Dances and what a loser I was.
All that changed when I met my wife, Jan, who formed the fixed opinion that I was not a loser and who helped establish a tradition of Doing Something Nice on Valentine’s Day that very much improved my opinion of it. So now the day has pleasant associations again, since I married the most wonderful human being in the world and she makes me feel like a million bucks, not just on Valentine’s Day, but every day. I think this year we are going to head off to Ivar’s in Mukilteo for some great seafood (yes, Australia does not have a corner on strange, polysyllabic names for towns). I may even give her a corny Valentine and help keep America’s card industry vibrant.
I think Valentine’s Day is probably the next biggest greeting card moneymaker after Christmas, and it’s an important night for restaurants and the wedding planning and chocolate industries. Unfortunately for those last two industries, Jan’s married and isn’t keen on chocolate. She dismisses it as “brown” and much prefers things with fruit in them. I hold out hope that a cure can be found for her condition, but until then, it’s restaurants for us.
But not this Valentine’s Day, since the entire Catholic world will be whipping off the tuxes and hot date dresses in favor of sackcloth and ashes and proclaiming a fast in Zion.
Sure, we could, I suppose, remain technically within the Church’s guidelines since it’s a seafood restaurant. We could, technically, indulge ourselves in a fabulous non-meat meal of utterly scrumptious foods from Puget Sound. But both Jan and I have this odd scruple about the whole Catholic Fish in Lent Thing: it’s just not penitential for either of us. So, as unordained bishop of my marriage, I am transferring the Feast of St. Valentine to this weekend so we can still have our hot date. On Ash Wednesday, we will be properly penitential and do the ashes, fasting, and grilled cheese sandwiches or lentils.
Still and all, the strange juxtaposition of Ash Wednesday–replete with reminders of death, self-abnegation, ashes, and fasting—with Valentine’s Day and its chocolates, lovey-dovey mush, and romance is actually strangely Christian.
Jesus, after all, calls himself the Bridegroom and, after his forty days of Lenten fasting in the desert, inaugurates his whole ministry at a wedding. Indeed, the nuptial imagery that suffuses the gospels constantly speaks of the kingdom of heaven as a wedding banquet. When Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman, the whole conversation between her and the Messianic Bridegroom is about marriage. And Jesus’ apostle Paul will liken the Church to a bride in contrast to the Bridegroom. Marriage language is all over the place in gospel.
So it’s not really all that odd that Ash Wednesday and the one day of the year set aside to honor romance should be juxtaposed. It is precisely on that day that Jesus entered in earnest into the sacrificial work whereby he “loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25–27).