This year, as Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day and as allegations of sexual abuse span White House to pulpit and pew, I propose trading roses for ashes.
The Feast of St. Valentines has a murky, syncretistic history. Some trace its origins to the martyrdom of two men, both named Valentine, by Roman Emperor Claudius on February 14th in the 3rd Century. However, mid-February was also the time when Rome celebrated the feast of Lupercalia, a pagan fertility rite involving naked, drunken men sacrificing a goat and dog, then using the animal hides to beat women. In 494, Pope Gelatius I tried changing the pagan Lupercalia into a Feast of Purification but, as often happens when the church confronts culture, culture won and pagan notions of romance endured.
Ash Wednesday originates with the Council of Nicea designating Lent as a period of preparation for Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ash Wednesday begins a 40-day period of examination, repentance, prayer and fasting leading up to Easter, (not counting Sundays). On Ash Wednesday, ashes are applied to one’s forehead in the mark of the cross, remembering, "For dust you are, and to dust your will return.” (Gen 3:19)
I’m aware that many Christians outside of Catholic, Lutheran and other liturgical traditions neither practice nor pay much attention to church feast days. My own evangelical upbringing taught me to be suspicious of ritual, thinking it empty or dead. But as a professor once reminded me years ago, “There are no dead or empty rituals. There are dead and empty people practicing rituals.” Regardless of your church tradition, recent exposure of sexual abuse in the church ought to be strong warning as to how empty we can become and how much we’ve been formed by Valentine’s Day rather than Ash Wednesday.
Valentine’s Day can shape our desire in distinctly selfish and objectifying ways. Love is something one falls in or out of. Sex is for personal gratification. Romance is about beauty and physical attraction. Marriage is about finding the perfect companion to meet one’s needs. But as Stanley Hauerwas once observed,
You've seen, as I have, how quickly desire can lead to self-deception and self-justification, "You're not meeting my needs. God wants me to be happy. The only way I can be happy is to . . . " Ash Wednesday compels us to examine the ways we have compromised truth, for example, by minimizing and accepting divorce, condemning but overlooking adultery, relegating pornography to a private matter or even denying or doubting evidence of sexual abuse. These and other sins are why Lent is important and necessary to call people to repentance, as Jesus did, so the church might bear true witness to resurrection freedom and joy.
Of course, it is quite possible for Christians to express authentic love in cards or flowers, and to celebrate the joy of life together over a fine dinner on Valentine’s Day. But this year, in this unique time when these two holidays collide and #Church Too reminds us of our collective failure to honor one another, perhaps the better choice is examination and repentance marked by ashes.
 Quoting tweet by Anne Lamont: "I'm giving up Valentine's Day for Lent."
 Stanley Hauerwas, “Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and ‘Human Sexuality,'” Christian Century, April 19, 1978, 417-422