Thinking Out Loud, Ash Wednesday Valentines

You’d imagine moral panic might have seized us here on the lip of Lent. As I write, Ash Wednesday is two days off – and so is Valentine’s Day. 

A cataclysmic choice seems to face us – ashes or hearts. What to do, what to do? Spend Wednesday in spiritual austerity as recommended by the church, or in celebration, with champagne, cake, balloons, marriage proposals, and dinners crafted by restaurants well aware that whoever picks up the check won’t be going over the arithmetic.

A wrestling match between the sacred and the secular – that’s the order of business for February 14, 2018, owing to the Gregorian Calendar. It last happened in 1945 (along with various other noteworthy events, like the ongoing collapse of the Third Reich). It’s set to happen again in 2024 and 2029. 

By the time this present essay goes to print, we’ll know how the whole thing came out. I might as well share my intuition – based not merely on the usual flurry of ads for restaurants but, more to the point, on the state of religion in our times. Pssst; I don’t think, externally at least, it’s much of a contest. 

Anglicans, like Roman Catholics, will go to church, obtain their smears of ashes, and then, maybe, complete the indicated fast. The day as a whole, nevertheless, in the eyes of the world, will be Valentine’s Day. Restaurants on the 14th will teem with diners and champagne bubbles. A number of folk – how many I obviously don’t know at this point – will wait ‘til the 15th or 16th – later even – to lionize Cupid.

Maybe that’s not the point. We all understand the secular disposition of the times we live in. Of all times whatever, it might be said. Angels and imps are in constant conflict over the state of human souls. The church likes to – feels obliged to, actually – place certain theoretical boundaries around their members’ lives: Sunday being the foremost example. Yet we know, as we drive to church on Sunday morning, how many fellow citizens we see disporting themselves in athletic garb or hanging out at Starbucks.

A lot of Americans still go to church; a larger number see no use idling away a useful morning with tales of an age long ago when people in a distant land went around in bathrobes and venerated (or pretended to) an unseen deity. Now we got pro football! Wow! How come it took so long?

The sacred and the secular ever contend. With points – if you spend much time online – going mainly to the latter and its ongoing cycle of amusements. 

The problem – one problem, certainly – with Lent is the lack of amusement it provides. It’s distinctly unamusing to be told, “Turn back O man, forswear thy foolish ways...” (So unamusing, I assume, that the Episcopal Powers That Be dropped the whole business from the 1982 Hymnal.) “Party on, dudes!” Isn’t that what we’d all rather hear?

Whether or no, Ash Wednesday, and the long, seemingly endless, Lenten season restore perspective. You have to stop and think about it, but the wholeness of life comes into view during these days and weeks of deprivation.

Life, we continually rediscover, isn’t exactly a party. A party lightens existence without covering up the grimy, wearisome details. These require facing, like it or not. We face them on, at the very least, an annual occasion set aside by the church not to depress; rather, to educate and inform; rather, to strengthen and inspirit.

In an odd sense the occasional bracketing, on Feb. 14, of Deprivation Day and Indulgence Day has its uses. To know both occasions, assuming one goes to the trouble, is to understand better the swings of existence: from joy to sorrow, from gratification to the postponement, hence the sharpening, of particular delights; the kind a loving Lord would not withhold from His people.

Valentine’s Day, ah, Valentine’s! Of its origins Dr. Geddes MacGregor observes that the elusive “St.” Valentine has been identified – yes – with courtship (in a residual nod to pagan Rome) and also, in German-speaking countries, with the cure of epilepsy. Whoever he was, he seems “popularly serviceable in almost any capacity.” Including that of repentance and fasting? Accidents of the calendar, we may surely infer, are not always necessarily accidents.

William Murchison is an author and journalist, living in Dallas, Texas.

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