Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day: A Providential Confluence

COMMENTARY: As we go into the Lenten desert this year, inspired by saintly witness, we can more eagerly accept in our own hearts the call and demand of true love.

We can follow the more excellent way of love these 40 days.
We can follow the more excellent way of love these 40 days. (photo: Shutterstock)

This year, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent fall on St. Valentine’s Day. While perhaps a disappointment to the various lovebirds among us, the intersection of the two holy days provides a providential opportunity for us all to remember the purpose of Lent, the nature of love, and the person and witness of St. Valentine, bishop and martyr.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (540).

In his Ash Wednesday homily in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI explains Our Lord’s time in the desert: “For him, that long period of silence and fasting was a complete abandonment of himself to the Father and to his plan of love. The time was a ‘baptism’ in itself, that is, an ‘immersion’ in God’s will and in this sense a foretaste of the Passion and of the Cross. … It meant engaging in battle with [the Tempter], with nothing but the weapon of boundless faith to challenge him, in the omnipotent love of the Father.”

We are called every Lent, therefore, to imitate the Lord’s own faith, filial boldness and love. We are called to the spiritual desert, to a living out of the baptismal graces that lead us from death to life in Jesus Christ.

It’s for this reason that Lent begins with the ancient Christian practice of being marked with ashes. The ashes do not only symbolize our physical death at the end of our life in this world, but also our spiritual death to pride, vanity and self-love. As we will hear in the only New Testament letter proclaimed at the Great Easter Vigil, St. Paul will exhort us:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

The desert of Lent is therefore a desert of purification. It is a cleansing of sin and a rejuvenation to newness of life in Jesus Christ. Such a purification is known as the purgative way. The purpose of such a purgation is to rid the soul of misplaced, wayward and selfish love. It refines our hearts to love God above all things and in all things.

Love has many incomplete and false definitions in our world today. The desert teaches us truth. It shows us the authentic path of love. By our time in the Lenten desert, we are shown that love is not about getting what we want. Love is not the euphoria of desire, or the indulgence to our passions, or a raw pursuit of pleasure. Love is not about our emotional fulfillment. Love is not about our own satisfaction. Love isn’t about us at all.

As St. John teaches us in his Gospel:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The apostle continues this teaching when he writes in his First Letter, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16).

From the heart of Our Lord, we are taught and know that love is about dying to ourselves in order to serve the beloved. Love is about God. It is about the ones we love. Love is about commitment and responsibility. Love dies to itself. 

Love is a kenosis, an outpouring. St. Paul speaks of true love when he tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3-8).

Love is always in service to what is good, noble and holy. It never seeks itself. It never feeds our egos, but constantly calls us out of ourselves. Love is about relationship. It is about justice and peace. 

As Paul further teaches us, in his oft-quoted passage from 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (13:3-8).

Love never ends. It never fails. Love touches the Face of God and reveals his goodness to those who receive it and share it with others.

The spiritual summons of the desert of love can seem daunting. The call to die to ourselves can easily overwhelm us. This is one of the reasons why we are blessed with the friendship and witness of countless saints. The saints, as friends of God and our older brothers and sisters in Christ, seek to help us follow “the more excellent way of love” (1 Corinthians 12:31). They displayed it in their lives, exemplified it by their asceticism and selfless service, and they call us every day to faithfully walk it as they did.

Such a saintly witness leads us to St. Valentine and the cross section of his feast day with the beginning of Lent. Valentine of Rome was not a chubby Cupid with little wings and a bow and arrow of popular secular culture. Valentine was a third-century bishop of the Catholic and apostolic faith, a miracle worker, a man who cared selflessly for others and a heroic martyr of the Lord Jesus.

As a bishop, St. Valentine preached the Gospel and called for faithfulness in marriage. He was vehemently opposed to the rampant polygamy of his day. He called for true and selfless love, especially among husbands and wives. In his day, Valentine was under an imperial edict that banned the marriage of young people. The emperor thought unmarried men would fight harder than married men since married men might be concerned about what would happen to their wives and families if they died. 

And so, because of the edict and his desire to preserve the virtue of young people, Valentine would secretly marry young couples. This is the possible basis of a “secret admirer” or anonymous “valentine” gift.

Valentine refused to sacrifice to the false gods. When he was imprisoned, he came to know his jailor and the jailor’s daughter, who was blind. Valentine healed the girl and restored her sight. 

When he was about to be martyred, he left a simple note for the girl that read, “Your Valentine.” This is the possible impetus to the exchanging of Valentine’s Day cards.

In each of the events of his life, and the possible customs that have emerged from them, Valentine wasn’t engaging in emotional sentimentalism or romantic melodrama. He was a Christian and a bishop who heard and knew the call of authentic love. He sought to follow the more excellent way of love, and everything he did, he did to stay faithful to that way.

It is a providential opportunity for us, therefore, to devotionally honor St. Valentine on Ash Wednesday. As we go into the Lenten desert this year, inspired by his witness, we can more eagerly accept in our own hearts the call and demand of true love.