GR8R LUV: When Valentine’s Day is Ash Wednesday


This year, we have the peculiar concurrence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, which resulted in a repartee between my wife and me. “Valentine’s Day should trump Ash Wednesday,” she declares and earnestly believes. She plans to prepare a festive dinner for the occasion in celebration of love. However, I will lead the 6:00 p.m. Ash Wednesday service at our parish, reminding our parishioners of their upcoming death!

Love vs. Death

While Ash Wednesday is undoubtedly the more important event of the two in the annual church calendar, my wife has a theological point. If we reframe the question by asking whether it is better to commemorate love or death, surely love should be preferred. After all, Jesus teaches that the greatest and first commandment is the love of God, and the second commandment is the love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). And Paul concludes that love is “the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).


Moreover, as Christians, we believe that love ultimately triumphs over death. To be sure, our belief runs contrary to the common human experience. The great literature of the world reflects this. Consider Dido, for example, who commits suicide after the end of her short romance with Aeneas. Or consider Romeo and Juliet, who tragically kill themselves when it seems that their romance cannot continue. From the perspective of the fallen world, in other words, life is ultimately a tragedy, for love cannot last and ends in death.

But Christians believe that life is a comedy in which death is eclipsed by love, concluding ultimately in the marriage of God and his people, Christ and his church. Consider one of the final visions in the Revelation to John:

I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:2-4)

Eros vs. Agape

On the other hand, hasn’t Valentine’s Day in modern culture simply become a celebration of eros (sexual love) instead of agape (sacrificial love)? And if so, surely Ash Wednesday should be preferred to Valentine’s Day. From this perspective, precisely what our culture needs is the repentance of Ash Wednesday for our disordered practice and celebration of eros. As C.S. Lewis explains in his book The Four Loves:

But Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon. And this is just how he claims to be honored and obeyed. Divinely indifferent to our selfishness, he is also demoniacally rebellious to every claim of God or man that would oppose him. (The Four Loves, 141)

Agape, by contrast, is the sacrificial love. This charity characterizes God himself, for “God is agape” (1 John 4:8). Lewis observes that this divine love is categorically different from all the natural loves from storge (affection), philia (friendship), and eros. For agape is not something to which the self is naturally drawn, but rather is expressed through self-denial in order to serve the other.

And yet, for Lewis, agape is not so much to be seen as the opposite of the natural loves but rather as their completion and guarantee. Christ came not to abolish but rather to fulfill. Far from opposing eros, agape situates it properly, nurtures it, and sustains it.


And so, perhaps the best way to approach the conjunction of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday is to celebrate both. After all, we worship a God who so loved the world that he gave his Son to die. Jesus went to the cross, taking the death that we deserve. There, Jesus took the curse of Adam that we hear on Ash Wednesday: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

Jesus puts it this way:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

And so this year, let’s celebrate Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday together as a little Holy Week, a day in which we see God’s love using death for our good.

This year, the candy hearts ubiquitous to Valentine’s Day should have some new texts: DUST 2 DUST, U R MORTAL, RPNT & BLV, and especially GR8R LUV. Perhaps that is asking too much.

But I plan to keep Ash Wednesday during the day—to impose and receive ashes in the service but then to remove the ashes, return home, and share the festive Valentine’s meal with my wife and children. Is that liturgical heresy? No, it is a celebration of gospel truth.

Image by vetrestudio, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

February 12, 2024


Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

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