Ash Wednesday AND Valentine's Day
What’s in the air, what does the Church say?
The 2018 Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday, and there seems to be some panic in that sense. Many see that as a clash, not sure how correct that is. In its secular tone, Valentine’s Day evokes a feeling of amusement, merrymaking, revelry, exchange of flowers, chocolates, etc. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, elicits austerity, introspection, mediation, and reflection. It introduces the forty days of prayer, fasting and abstinence to commemorate Christ’s suffering and death. Different dioceses and churches have put out some directives to the faithful regarding the primacy of Lent over Valentine’s Day. For instance, the Archdiocese of Baltimore in the United States reminds the faithful that despite Ash Wednesday coinciding with Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday will be observed as a day of fasting and abstinence. Wow! The big questions: is the Church canceling this year’s Valentine’s Day celebration or should it be postponed? Do lovers not have to exchange gifts on that day as usual? The susurrations are many. Some say Christ has hijacked the day as though it’s different from other days. Others insinuate that the church wants to strip the day of its mundane connotation. What exactly is happening?
Between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday
From a religious perspective, Valentine’s Day seems to be flagrantly mis-celebrated. But in a sense, it can also be said to be an event that bridges the gap between young people in the world and the church because it is all about love notwithstanding how it is interpreted. Saint Valentine died for love; martyred under the emperor Claudius 11 because he embodied Jesus. He embedded Christ’s love thus, “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this: to lay one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). According to sources, Saint Valentine was either a priest of Rome or the former Bishop of Terni, Narnia and Amelia, a town of Umbria, in central Italy. Valentine used the opportunity of his imprisonment to spread the good news about Jesus. He converted the judge prompting him and his family, his forty-four-member household (family members and servants) to get baptized.
On the other hand, Lent is celebrated the world over. In the Church, it is a special forty-days period marked by prayers, fasting and almsgiving. This practice follows from Christ’s forty days’ fasting in the desert immediately after his baptism. He “was led into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights” (Matt. 4:1). Fasting is about mortification of our bodies, abstinence from the things we naturally crave for. Prayer is a channel to stay connected with God, a weapon against temptations from the devil. Almsgiving expresses our faith in God, who “loved the world and gave his only Son…” (John 3:16). Through almsgiving, we are able to extend God’s love beyond our comfort zones. In Lent, believers are invited to give up pleasurable goods for the sake of those in need and for the sake of their salvation. The United States Bishops Conference remarks, “We are called not just to abstain from sin during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ”.
The first thing that connects Valentine’s Day with Lent is love. Valentine’s Day is Lover’s Day, that’s obvious. It originates from the idea that Saint Valentine was imprisoned for love; performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire. Prior to his death, Valentine was said to have written a letter to the judge’s daughter whom he healed and which he signed, “Your Valentine”. This seemed to be the spark for what is known today as “Lovers Day”.
Love originates from God, and overrides everything. In his love, he invites us to love one another. Valentine’s Day becomes that great opportunity to love as love is the elevation of the human being to that divine dignity from creation. That’s what Saint Valentine sacrificed his life for. He believed in God’s love and dignified it through the sacrament of marriage. He understood the futility of the flesh devoid of God’s love. He realized that mortality symbolized by the ash (Ash Wednesday) is transformed into immortality in Christ who is our eternal Val. In Saint Valentine, agape and filial love overcame eros or erotic love much orchestrated by mis-celebrated lover’s day. Love is not a commercial venture, and cannot be reduced to mere material or physical exchange. It is not just about watching movies together, not just about giving flowers. It is a commitment, a relationship.
Secondly, Valentine’s Day seems to remind us of the oneness of humanity despite faith affiliation. For instance, Saint Valentine is commemorated in the Anglican community, as well as in Lutheranism on February 14. The Lutheran Service Book commemorates Valentine on this date. The Eastern Orthodox Church also allows their members named Valentino (male) or Valentina (female) to observe their name day on February 14 following the Western calendar.
Therefore, if Lent celebrates Christ’s sacrificial love, then love becomes a gift for us and for one another. Lent draws our attention to God’s love made visible in Christ. Lent focuses our attention on the need to sacrifice for one another. It invites us to authentic love as demonstrated by Saint Valentine, who guided the Roman soldiers to the true meaning of love. Lent tells us that we are all lovers for God’s sake as Pope Francis puts it, “…a favorable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ."
There is really no clash between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday because Christ is our capital “VAL-IN-TIME”. Christ is the “Beginning, the first-born from the dead”, …and through whom God reconciles all things to himself (cf. Col. 1:18-19). Valentine’s Day represents God’s love whereas Lent makes that love available to God’s creatures.
The great lesson from these apparent co-events is to enlighten us that our life should become a spectrum of Valentine. Sacrificing for those we love should be an ongoing process. Giving up what we value for the sake of love should be a life commitment. Praying for loved ones should be a constant practice. Scripture says, “When the completion of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law” (Gal. 4:7). That’s the meaning of Valentine- Christ, our capital and eternal VAL came at the appointed time to save us. Saint Valentine died for the Roman soldiers because he understood the mandate of Christ, “There is no greater love than this: to lay one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). So, both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day celebrate one and same thing- GOD”S LOVE in our midst. As Saint Paul says, “Faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of them is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). That’s Valentine. That’s Ash Wednesday. That’s Lent. That’s our life.