Why Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day actually aren’t so different

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Remember the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye asks his wife, “Do you love me?”

Golde thinks that she must have misheard. “Do I what?”

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Tevye repeats, “Do you love me?”

The problem is not Golde’s hearing, so it must be Tevye’s thinking.

Do I love you?
With our daughters getting married
And this trouble in the town
You’re upset, you’re worn out
Go inside, go lie down!
Maybe it’s indigestion…

But Tevya persists, “Golde, I’m asking you a question. Do you love me?”

“You’re a fool.”

“I know, but do you love me?”

Exasperated, Golde sings:

Do I love you?
For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After 25 years, why talk about love right now?

Tevya tells her, “Golde, the first time I met you was on our wedding day. I was scared.”

“I was shy.”

“I was nervous.”

“So was I.”

Then Tevye sings:

But my father and my mother
Said we’d learn to love each other
And now I’m asking, Golde
Do you love me?

Golde takes her stand on fact. “I’m your wife.”

“I know, but do you love me?”

Then Golde sings:

Do I love him?
For 25 years I’ve lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

“Then you love me?”

“I suppose I do.”

“And I suppose I love you too.”

And then they both sing:

It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After 25 years
It’s nice to know.

Ash Wednesday preaches itself. Even more so this year, as it coincides with Valentine’s Day. We are to love our Valentines every day of every year, and that love should show itself in all that we say and do. But we celebrate Valentine’s Day because we have a need, every once in a while, to make love explicit, to make it more pronounced, more visible and tangible. Hence our heart-shaped candy boxes, flower bouquets and romantic dinners.

In fasting, in abstinence, in visits to church, we are showing our love to God.

That is how we should understand Ash Wednesday and all the ascetical acts of Lent that follow. In fasting, in abstinence, in visits to church, in forgoing pleasures for the sake of the Gospel, we are showing our love to God. We are making it explicit, something visible and tangible.

Some have argued that asceticism has no place in the Christian life. Isn’t everything, especially our salvation, a gift from God? And we do not want to make the mistake of thinking that we can earn God’s gifts by what we offer to God.

No, indeed. But discipleship is a form of love. We do not do loving acts to earn the other’s love. We act lovingly because they love us and we love them. It is true. Love comes first and then its many expressions.

We do not do loving acts to earn the other’s love. We act lovingly because they love us and we love them.

But love would be terribly impoverished if it never bespoke itself. If it did not go a bit out of its way with a gesture or a word. Love needs to express itself. That is a human reality.

It is also a divine reality. The Father expresses his love, his very self, into the Son. The Son returns this love in his own act of self-expression. And the love they express is love itself, the Holy Spirit.

This mystery of divine self-expression enters into our history. God loved us even though we had sinned. God could have redeemed us without any act of self-expression. But God bespeaks love and redemption in the person, in the words and in the deeds of Christ. In Jesus, love expresses itself, becomes something visible, something tangible.

We need asceticism. We need Lent. We need Ash Wednesday. We need Valentine’s Day. Not to earn anything. Not to prove anything. Only because, whether divine or human, love must bespeak itself, become something visible, something tangible.

Readings: Joel 2:12-18 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 Matthew 6:1-6, 6-18

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