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February 14 this year brings the rare convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Rarer still is that it will happen in 2029 as well, twice in one decade. The two observances will not meet again until 2170. That rarity highlights an apparent disparity: “sackcloth and ashes” seem uneasy neighbors with roses and chocolates. What does penitential fasting have in common with romantic indulgence? When we look a little deeper, the coincidence of these holidays unveils a surprising complementarity, as each can bring out the true meaning of the other.

Valentine’s Day is, after all, St. Valentine’s day. Its religious origins are almost entirely forgotten (even the Catholic Church no longer observes the feast day), and details of the saint’s life are sparse. In one popular and ancient tradition, Valentine was a third-century Roman priest who clandestinely and illegally married young couples in defiance of Emperor Claudius II’s ban on marriage, thus exempting the men from being conscripted into the largely pagan army. (Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers.) After his arrest, Valentine continued to evangelize from his prison cell until he suffered martyrdom on February 14, 269. According to one legend, he left behind a note for a young convert, perhaps encouraging her in the faith, and signed it, “From your Valentine.” 

Regardless of their historical accuracy, the life and death of St. Valentine remind us that love is not a feeling or an emotion; nothing of permanence can stand upon such shaky ground. Rather, love is a choice, an act of the will that puts another’s good ahead of our own. Real love always involves sacrifice, dying to oneself so that the other can live and grow and flourish. The greatest symbol of love, then, is not Cupid, but the Cross. There we see the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love, as God himself dies so that we might live. Our own daily sacrifices may not involve bloodshed, but every blow to our selfish instincts hurts no less deeply. They are the growing pains of love. Every martyr imitates that love to a radical degree and challenges us, each in our own way, to do the same. 

We hear that challenge every Ash Wednesday: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” These ancient words recall the transience of all created things, and the smudge of ashes accompanying them reminds the Christian to look beyond the false allurements and passing pleasures of this world. After all, roses wilt, chocolates melt, and the flesh will soon enough turn to dust. 

From those ashes, the Christian rises anew with his love now elevated and purified—better able to turn his gaze from himself to the other. His love becomes ecstatic in the true sense of the word, as it brings him out of himself and unites him more closely to God and neighbor. One of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council describes the paradox by which the human person “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” While this “law of the gift,” as Pope John Paul II called it, would not fit on a piece of heart-candy, it ought to be inscribed more lastingly on the hearts of all lovers—of those who seek out and cherish what is good and true and beautiful. 

Christianity remains, at its core, a love story, the romance between God and his people. Despite our own shortcomings and infidelities, God remains faithful to his promise. That’s why all true love is a living gospel that reveals the God who is love, and who teaches us how to love in return. That process of dying to oneself out of love for another, of finding joy amid trial, of making the other’s good our own glory, is the crown of every martyr, and the lasting happiness of every couple. 

As Christians the world over begin this season of Lent, they may find this Valentine’s Day a bit more muted than usual, but perhaps, at the same time, more meaningful. They may find in this odd pairing a chance to look beyond the fleeting and ephemeral, and find a love whose cost may be higher, but whose rewards are far greater. Amid the ashes, they may find that God’s own heart offers us a truth worth living for, and a love worth dying for.

Fr. Brian A. Graebe is a priest of the archdiocese of New York.

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Image by Maimaid licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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