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A child with ashes on her forehead smiles during an Ash Wednesday service at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. This year, the day of atonement falls on Valentine's Day, providing a lot of food for thought about love and transformation for Christians.

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

For the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a Christian day of atonement that marks the beginning of Lent, fall on the same date, Feb. 14. This has many Christian leaders and their congregants asking, "What do we do with a day centered on hearts, flowers and love, which is also now marked by ash?"

There are, of course, both pagan and religious roots to Valentine’s Day. Around 200 A.D., Romans celebrated Lupercalia on the ides (15th) of February honoring the goddess Juno Februata. It was a Mardi Gras kind of revelry, and Christian clergy grew unhappy with this.

Rather than honor a pagan goddess, they encouraged people to select any Christian saint to emulate for one year. After this prudish version of Lupercalia proved unpopular, clergy then came up with an idea for celebrating the 14th of February, thus getting the jump on Lupercalia by one day and turning the focus to romantic love.

The holiday, in its present form, still centers on expressions of love. Many people greet the day excited and happy to be with the one they love. Yet for others, this day does occur like ash. Heartbreak, unrequited love, the loss of someone they held dear, all the reasons Valentine’s Day surfaces like a cruel reminder of what is missing in life. Even in the best of times, who doesn’t remember a day when they felt like dust, where even the slightest breath could blow them away.

How fitting really, that Lent begins with Ash Wednesday’s smudged thumb, the mark of the cross, and a voice that says: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember you are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the love of God forever.”

This day Christians freely say they are scorched and mark themselves by what has made it through the burning. They remember they are dust. Perhaps this Valentine’s Day can serve as a reminder of what the source of creation can do with dust and its power to make all things new … even and perhaps especially, human brokenness.

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