An Ash-Wednesday St. Valentine’s Day
This year St. Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Some ask: How can we reconcile the two? One is about beginning forty days of self-denial, fasting, and almsgiving in order to prepare for Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross; the other exalts human love and relationships . Yet the two are linked, as both are about true human love.
Christ’s Passion and Death is about true human love: “Greater love than this no man has than to lay down his live for his friends,” Jesus said at the Last Supper. Human love entails sacrifice, laying down our lives for the one we love. Ash Wednesday prepares us for that. Accepting the ashes—Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return—reminds us that the only thing that remains at the end of our lives is love… not riches, fame, comfort, popularity, Facebook likes, etc. True human love should move us to go beyond ourselves and to sacrifice ourselves for others out of love; we need to be able to say No to ourselves so as to say Yes to love. Jesus Christ teaches this best.
St. Valentine himself gives us a wonderful example of saying No to himself and Yes to love. This Roman priest opposed the edict of the Emperor Claudias II that prohibited marriages of young people. Claudias thought that young, unmarried men were more daring (or more reckless) in battle and thus made better soldiers, as they were less concerned about dying and leaving behind a wife and family. The Emperor was okay that a young man had multiple partners, but not one exclusive person for whom he could really live or with whom he could form a family… that was bad for the military.
The Christian ideal of an exclusive, lifelong marriage was as novel then as it is today. It even attracted non-Christians to the Faith, as many young people wanted something that would give true meaning to their lives through the Christian ideal of marriage. So—contrary to its intent—Claudias’ edict drove many young couples to marriage even if it meant they had to become Christian. St. Valentine would secretly marry couples within the Church, consecrating their relationship before God. This was a direct violation of the Emperor’s edict, which the Church considered intrinsically unjust and evil.
Eventually, St. Valentine was caught and imprisoned—much like St. John the Baptist for declaring unlawful Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. St. Valentine was held in prison by a guard named Asterius. His blind daughter befriended the Roman priest. At Asterius’ request, St. Valentine prayed for his daughter’s healing and she miraculously regained her sight. Asterius and his family too became Christians.
When St. Valentine was brought before the Emperor Claudias, the priest tried to win over the Emperor and to convert him to Christianity. But in the end, although the Emperor came to admire St. Valentine for his integrity and moral courage, it was just too hard for him to change his ways. Claudias ordered St. Valentine to be beheaded for his witness to the holiness of the vocation of human love—he became a martyr of human love.
Doesn’t this resonate with Ash Wednesday, which prepares us for Christ’s own witness to human love? It should! Because human love and marriage requires suffering, it requires being able to lay down one’s own comforts, preferences, and plans in order to seek the good of a common life-project in marriage and family. That is the kind of love so many people—especially young people—long for. And Ash Wednesday is telling us how to find it!
Let’s use these forty days of sacrifice and prayer, of learning to say No to ourselves, in order to become better lovers… better witnesses to human love… just as St. Valentine did by imitating Christ’s “laying down his life for his friends.”
Fr. John R. Waiss
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