Ashes for Valentine’s Day

How today’s observances of both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day oddly fit together.


John Stonestreet

In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea decided that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon, either on or after the spring equinox. In other words, the date upon which Christians celebrate the resurrection is essentially the result of a sort of astronomical convergence.  

This year, there’s another fascinating religious and cultural convergence on the calendar. Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Could there be two more culturally different days? 

Valentine’s Day is associated with flowers and candy. On Ash Wednesday, people receive dark smudges on their foreheads. On Valentine’s Day, people expect romance. On Ash Wednesday, people expect to hear about repentance and self-denial. The words to remember on Valentine’s Day are, “I love you.” On Ash Wednesday, the words are, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” 

One reason these days seem to not fit together is that we’ve forgotten the real history of Valentine’s Day. Before it was the corporate creation of greeting card companies, it was a day to remember third-century Christian martyr Valentinus of Rome. Not a lot is known about Valentinus, but the most widely accepted version of his martyrdom is that he ran afoul of emperor Claudius II, who had prohibited marriage in Rome because of his belief that “Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.” 

Valentinus defied the emperor by marrying couples in secret. He was caught and executed on or about February 14. Whether the story happened exactly this way, every ancient reference to Valentinus associates him and February 14th with martyrdom and sacrifice. In this light, the day is actually far more fitting for the observance of Lent, which begins today. 

On the other hand, our culture’s view of love, sex, and romance is so twisted and dangerous, it seems appropriate to celebrate Valentine’s Day with repentance. This is not to say that romantic love, what C.S. Lewis called “Eros,” is wrong. In fact, it’s a gift from God. As Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, when rightly ordered, eros causes us to toss “personal happiness aside as a triviality and [plant] the interests of another in the center of our being.” Romantic love can be, Lewis thought, “a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival.” 

And that explains just how much eros has become disordered. It should not be seen as an end in and of itself, but as a means—something that points beyond itself and points our hearts beyond ourselves to a higher love. That higher love is, of course, agape, a love that only comes from God Himself. Lent prepares our hearts to receive the total self-giving love of God, the love that caused God to become man and live and die as one of us, for our sakes, despite our sin and rebellion. 

The sexual revolution has, in so many ways, disordered eros, treating it as an end, not a means. Twisted eros is not selfless or life-giving but rather a sort of mutant sensuality that leads to the selfish and damaging brokenness with which our culture must now reckon. 

Today, Ash Wednesday, reminds us that there’s more to life than sensual pleasure, more to meaning than selfishness, and more to love than the shriveled-up version that has captivated our Western imaginations. 

In response, we should ask, “How am I responding to so great an expression of love as what God has shown us?” And we should consider Valentinus, whose response was to give up his own life. For us too, a kind of “death” will be required, namely a death to self and to the desires our culture treats as ultimate.  

(To be clear, none of this lets husbands off the hook with your wives. So don’t forget the flowers.) 

To be better equipped to counter the lies about disordered loves so prevalent in our culture, check out The Identity Project is the most comprehensive library of on-demand videos and resources addressing issues of identity, humanness, and sexuality available, all from a Judeo-Christian worldview. For a special Valentine’s Day discount, go to this month and enter BREAKPOINT at checkout.  

For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to 

This Breakpoint was revised from one released on 2.14.2018. 


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