When I was in high school, there was a thrilling and horrifying rite of passage known as Valentine's carnations. It was a fundraiser - brilliant on that front - where you could spend $1 to sign up to have a carnation delivered, during school hours, anonymously or not, to the object of your affection on Valentine's Day, or the nearest weekday to it. It was a torturous adventure of discovering who liked whom, who liked you, who was breaking up or hooking up, and who was most popular. I have to admit that I loved it. Sometimes I would wait, sweaty-palmed, all day, hoping, hoping, hoping that someone, even my best girlfriend, had sent a flower to me, only to leave school empty-handed. Sometimes I was surprised to get several carnations, some from secret admirers (I still have some of those cards in a scrapbook). Sometimes I even dared to send a flower to someone else.
Overall, even though I relished the drama, it was a cruel game. There was no hiding who took home bouquets of blooms, and who was not so lucky. The flowers were delivered during class, so maximum fuss was made, or not. There was so much social clout hanging on each one of those occasions that it only underscored the inevitable 'winners' and 'losers' of the adolescent social scene. It was a literal scorecard of love.
Valentine's Day has always felt like this for me, whether I have been happily coupled or not. It seems less like romance and more like the Hunger Games - tests and traps to assess one's desirability, even when you are in a relationship, played out in what feels like a public setting. Sort of like New Year's Eve, it seems like everyone else is doing something fabulous and I am home alone in my jammies watching TV.
This year, at least, I do know what I will be doing. I will be in church, because Valentine's Day falls on a Sunday. And I will be shunning sweets, alcohol, going out for meals and unnecessary spending, because it is the First Sunday in Lent. In fact, this is the first time these dates have coincided since 1937, and the last time they will, as far as I can tell, for the rest of the century. This makes me very happy.
Lent, despite its somber attire, is all about love. It is about acts of self-denial and devotion as ways to pay close attention to our love of God. It is little reminders every day - no dessert, no Facebook - that help us remember at regular intervals why we are doing this, to help us remember our commitment, our faith. It is a little delivery of love, every day.
And these moments of discipline from us are not made in a vacuum. They are, of course, a response to love - the love of God that created and redeems and sustains us. They are the smallest tokens of our gratitude for being loved.
And this is so important in a world that always measures - are we good enough? Strong, smart, successful, beautiful enough? Inevitably, there are those who are not, when everything is on a scale, when only the best will make it.
Our Lenten practice is counter-cultural in that fewer and fewer people engage in it, and it is counter-cultural in that it proclaims a God for whom there is no scale. Every person is made in the image of God. Every life is made from and by love.
This is especially good news for those who find themselves lost and lonely, empty-handed in love and life. But it is also good news for those of us who live with an abundance of everything. No one 'deserves' it, nothing makes us more or less worthy of God's love. It compels us to share, and it compels us to hope, depending on where we find ourselves in any given day.
There will be no flowers for me this Valentine's Day, not even in church. The altar will be as bare as possible, given our penitential season. But that's ok, I won't feel any less loved. In fact, I am looking forward to it.