“Lent comes providentially to reawaken
us, to shake us from our lethargy.”
– Pope Francis
Secularism has been on the rise since time immemorial. It seems there is no escape from the twin pillars of commercialization and globalization which together have done much to usher in and maintain a focus which is far removed from God and His church. Alarmingly, even among some quarters of the church a seemingly silent thread of secularism exits. While Ash Wednesday is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, the practice of sprinkling oneself with ashes has Biblical references. Among the Bible verses are 1 Kings 21:27: “It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently.”
Ash Wednesday is significant for the church in many ways. However, perhaps the most pronounced importance of this now Christian festivity is the beginning of the Lent, a period of 40 days of fasting, abstinence and temptation which Christ endured. It is also known as The Day of Ashes, which commemorate that day when Christians mark their forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross.
Some theologians argue that Ash Wednesday’s non-Christian origin was accepted into the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
In the Old Testament, ashes were used for two purposes: as a sign of humility and mortality, and as an indicator for sorrow and repentance of sin.
The symbolism of putting a cross mark on the forehead has its genesis in Romans 6: 3-18 and serves as a spiritual representation mark placed on a Christian at the time of his or her baptism. It bears thought: Are Christians obligated to observe Ash Wednesday? On the other hand, many Christians and non-Christians see it as their duty to observe Valentine’s Day. Every February 14, candy, flowers, strawberry and gifts are exchanged between loved ones in the name of St Valentine. According to some sources, over 150 million St Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged annually, making it the second most popular card sending holiday after Christmas. Among the symbols of Valentine’s Day are the red roses, the favourite flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of erotic love, desire, attraction and affection.
Does it matter if the church adopted an ancient festival used to worship pagan gods? For an answer we turn to Leviticus 18:30: “Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not ye anyone of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God. “
It is clear that in this day and age the church has not only adopted these pagan customs but has embraced them as well, in contradiction to the teaching of God. The children of Israel were warned to stay away from these pagan activities as it would contribute to their downfall as a nation. It is quite likely that should you walk into a church—regardless of denomination—on any one of these holidays, you would see the members partaking in the rituals and gift giving. It can be argued that we have lost our way as a people of God and, as a result, the rest of the world does not fear or respect God’s instruction.
For 400 years, the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt and upon their exit they fell right back into the customs that led to their enslavement. The old adage, “the more things change is the more they remain the same” is rather useful in this instance. Regardless of all signs and miracles God showed the children of Israel that He is their God, they were disobedient and chose to worship a graven image of a golden calf while Moses was away getting instructions, laws and commandments. Although no one has pinpointed the exact origin of Valentine’s Day, a good place to start is ancient Rome, where men hit on women by doing exactly that—hitting them. From February 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia where drunken, naked men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just killed. The young women would queue for the men to hit them. They believed this would make them fertile. This brutal celebration included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be sexually engaged for the duration of the festival, or longer. The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of this holiday. On February 14 of different years in the 3rd century, A.D. Emperor Claudius II executed two men—both named Valentine. Their martyrdom was honoured by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St Valentine’s Day. Later, Pope Gelasius I confused things even more in the 5th century by combining St Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. However, that didn’t change much, as there was still much drinking and sex involved.
As the years went on, the holiday grew in popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. It was during this period that handmade paper cards became the token of choice in the Middle Ages. Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. In 1913, Hallmark Cards began mass producing Valentine cards, and some might add that February has not been the same since.
Today, Valentine’s Day is a multi-billion-dollar industry. According to market research firm IBIS World,Valentine’s Day sales reached US$17.6 billion last year; this year’s sales are expected to total US$18.6 billion.
Undoubtedly, many will break the proverbial bank this Valentine’s Day buying jewellery, strawberry, chocolates and flowers for their loved ones without much concern about the true history of this pagan holiday. In the Jamaican culture, the period of Lent which culminates in Easter also sees an increase in sales of bun and cheese and fish, which fetches a high price during this season. The clash of both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is yet another reminder that secularism has invaded the once sacred space that Christendom once commanded. While Lent is a season of spiritual preparation, Valentine’s Day is a time for eroticism and money making for merchants. A concerted effort must be made to safeguard our minds, thoughts and actions against the forces of evil which continue to find cunning ways to distract us from the Kingdom of God. Having said this, one is not suggesting that you should not find time to spend with your spouse; after all, God created marriages and conducted the first such ceremony between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
In the words of Plato, “for neither birth, nor wealth, nor honour can awaken in the minds of men the principles which should guide those who from their youth aspire to an honourable and excellent life, as love awakens them.”