Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day can seem like contradictions. One day celebrates romantic love, while the other reminds us that our bodies will one day turn into dust. This year, February 14 will be filled with both Cupid and ashes.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and the preparation for the holiest days of the Church year. I always find that the beginning of Lent comes up so fast that I do not spend enough time reflecting on how I should spend this season. My tendency towards the eleventh hour isn’t new – if I am honest, I also tend to buy my Valentine’s Day gift for my wife at the last minute as well. So this year, I want to make the start of Lent and Valentine’s Day more impactful by considering what they mean — together.
This year’s simultaneous occurrence of these two important days on the calendar has been a fruitful coincidence for me because it prompted me to start thinking about the day sooner than I usually do. So often, I live in a state of distraction – going from one day to the next without being intentional about the coming days. Once I investigated the significance of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, I found that their alignment offers a powerful opportunity to see that love means that we die to ourselves.
St. Valentine was a priest (possibly a bishop) who lived during the third century. He was a man of tremendous faith. During his time, Emperor Claudius struggled to employ soldiers in his army. He thought this was because men would rather marry than serve him. So, Claudius outlawed marriages in order to spike the numbers in his army.
In response, Valentine often married couples in secret so they could enter into the sacred bond of lifelong love together. When he was later imprisoned for doing so, he healed the jailer’s daughter of blindness, befriended her, and would often sign his letters to her, “your Valentine.” Valentine was eventually beheaded for his defiance of the emperor and died as a martyr of the faith.
Learning about the life of St. Valentine has compelled me to reflect on what I do for Valentine’s Day and how I approach the everyday aspects of my marriage. Specifically, how can I sacrifice more for my wife? Instead of viewing ordinary tasks as a simple responsibility, I have begun to see that doing the dishes or laundry after a long day of work can be an offering of love to her because she so often does them for me. Simply carving out time to write a letter to her on an ordinary day is another practice that I know will make our relationship more rooted in the sacrifice of St. Valentine.
Love costs us something: our time, our energy, our sacrifice and effort. Lent is meant to cost us small offerings so that we can gain further insight into Jesus’ sacrifice. That is why we receive ashes on the first day of Lent. I would argue that Valentine lived from the consciousness of his own ashes. He knew that to follow Jesus meant that his entire being would be an offering to God.
This Lent, I know I am being invited to do something similar. So, rather than giving up ice cream and sweets, I want to be committed to sacrificing in ways that explicitly proclaim the love that motivates the sacrifice. This Valentine’s Day will be made up of no extravagant gifts; my wife and I have decided to make Lent an extended Valentine’s Day of sacrifices for each other.
Just like making time to sacrifice for my wife, this Lent I want to make the sacrifice of waking up 15 minutes earlier each day to pray. I want to commit to being more present at Sunday Mass, especially during the reception of Holy Communion. I hope that these practices will be more concerned with loving Christ and less concerned with giving things up because that is “what you do during Lent.”
This Valentine’s Day, and Ash Wednesday, practice sacrificial love that continues throughout Lent. See that love is most pure when it acts out of intentional choices for the other. Then we will experience that St. Valentine and ashes truly belong together.