This year Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day land on the same day, an odd pairing of somber ritual and extravagant celebration. The two holidays could not be more different as they pull the spirit in opposite directions. I find myself wondering if some couples will show up for a romantic dinner with ashes still on their foreheads, or whether folks will find it just too difficult to summon up the proper response for each experience and so opt to skip one of them (and if so, my bets are on fewer observers of Ash Wednesday than of Valentine’s Day).
Yet the two observances may not be perversely aligned after all, may actually have helpful perspectives to offer on one another. Ash Wednesday challenges us to consider all the limitations of our lives, all that keeps us from being our best selves, especially in light of the ultimate limitation of mortality. Are we living the way we most want to live, given that we will not live forever? Valentine’s Day contrasts the experience of limitation with the experience of abundance, of the wonderful opening of the heart that comes whenever we love another deeply. And that abundance can also come with a challenge: am I living the way I most want to live, given that I am in a loving relationship that ever invites me to be my best self for another?
Perhaps Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, by landing on the same day this year, invite us to look more honestly at our hearts, to see whether we are truly living heart-free, heart-whole. Whether one observance offers a more meaningful challenge than the other, or whether both observances bring a challenge, the day comes with an opportunity to love more fully—an opportunity that is always worth seizing.