Ashes and Chocolate


 Pastor Denise Clark-Jones


This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 14. Valentines’ Day and Ash Wednesday – what a contrast between the secular and the spiritual! Like several of our Christian celebrations, the date corresponds to a pagan festival, the feast of Lupercalia. From February 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The name of the festival was derived from “lupus,” meaning wolf, suggesting that the festival was associated with a pagan god who protected herds from wolves. It was also associated with the myth of the “she-wolf, who nursed Romulus and Remus. These twin sons of a human and the Roman God, Mars, were the mythological founders of the city of Rome. The celebration included a fertility rite, which today would be called an assault of women.

Instead of gifted with chocolates and roses, women received lashes from whips made from strips of skin of animals slain for sacrifice to the gods by naked, drunken men. These lashes were believed to render women fertile. The rest of the fertility rite is a bit sordid for a church newsletter, but suffice it to say, there were probably a lot of babies born during late fall in the early Roman Empire.

February 14 became part of the Christian calendar during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, from 268-270. The Emperor executed two men by the name of Valentine on Feb. 14 in two different years.  Due to their martyrdom, these two men were given sainthood, and Feb.14, the day of their martyrdom, became a feast day. It is no coincidence that this Christian holiday became a bigger celebration than most saints’ days. This Christian holiday, established in the fifth century, rivaled that violent and bawdy pagan holiday, Lupercalia. Through the years, particularly spurred on by English writers Shakespeare and Chaucer, Valentines’ Day became more of a secular celebration of romance.

So, this year Ash Wednesday becomes a rival celebration to Valentines’ Day. A day of confession and repentance versus a day of flowers, chocolate candy, wining and dining… hmmm…who do you think will get the most celebrants?

There are no Ash Wednesday parties or gifts. The only food and drink is a small bite of bread and a thimble-sized serving of wine – and even that is grape juice in many Protestant churches. It is not surprising that Ash Wednesday has not been a significant day to those denominations that are neither non-Catholic nor Anglo-Catholic (Episcopalians and Lutherans).

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.   Although confession and repentance bring peace to mind and soul, it does not offer what the Apostle Paul called delights “of the flesh.” Paul is often, mistakenly, accused of condemning any pleasure or joy. John Calvin has gotten the same false accusation. Yet, both men would, no doubt, be saddened by the fact that more people will be found in bars and restaurants on this Feb.14 than in churches.

During Lent, we are invited to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and neighbor by exercising the Disciplines of Lent: repentance, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Living out a discipline takes our Lord’s words about obedience and self-denial seriously. Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt.16:24).

The often debated question is “Is it better to give up something or take up something for Lent?” My interpretation of the bible is that any sacrifice that does not give to someone else is little service to God’s kingdom. Does giving up foods that you fear are making you overweight serve the kingdom of God? Perhaps, if your motivation is honoring and preserving the gift of life and a healthy body God has given you. But, is this not only half of the sacrifice? When we have more than we need on our tables, Jesus reminds us that we have a responsibility to help those whose tables do not have enough food.

I am not advocating sacrifice merely for the sake of sacrifice, nor am I proposing (a little pun!) to skip celebrating Valentines’ Day. Another word for “almsgiving” is “works of love.” Having loved ones is a gift from God. Love is what God desires for us to guide our relationships and our actions. So, why not celebrate both Valentines’ Day and Ash Wednesday?

May God be with you on your Lenten Journey,

Pastor Denise  ♥

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois