Ash Wednesday, an Invitation to Embrace Authentic Love on Valentine's Day

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. ­– John 15:13

This year, it’s a point of some bemusement in Catholic circles that the traditional feast of Saint Valentine finds itself falling on the same day as Ash Wednesday. Valentine’s Day, long since secularized into a commemoration of romantic love, with notions of chocolate, flowers, and candies inscribed with “Be Mine,” sits in tension with the injunction that comes from the Book of Genesis: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:19)

The Irony thickens further when one considers the “real” Saint Valentine, whose story has been muddied in obscurity and legend for almost 1800 years (or so). The feast, identity, and traditions associated with the day are often conflated and shared between two (or more) Valentines, often said to be martyrs (as far from a trifling or romantic end as can be). I won’t be solving the riddle of the “historical Valentine” in this brief space. But the pairing of Lent and Valentine’s this year offers us a special chance at reflection – especially on the nature of authentic love.

In the Catholic tradition, love is not merely an emotion, feeling, or moment of excitement. Certainly, love can incorporate these ideas in a secondary or tertiary way, but to limit love to these ideas is to devoid it of all its meaning and significance. For Catholics, love is an act of the will, an unselfish choice to love the other person for their own sake, and for their own good (whether we “feel” something or not. In fact, real love can often feel quite unpleasant). To love is to say yes to another, to make a gift of one’s self for another – we might call this love Eucharistic love, a Christ-like love. It is anything but fluffy or sentimental.

Consider that the forty days of Lent lead inexorably towards the Passion of Christ, and from the Passion to the Resurrection. They prepare us – mind, body, and soul – for the holiest days of the Christian year, for the ultimate commemoration and recollection of the unfathomable reach of divine love. It is no mistake that as Lent ends, the Triduum begins. We empty ourselves, and abandon ourselves, to prepare to receive Him who emptied Himself for us. In the mysteries of the Upper Room, in the agony of the cross, in the patient waiting of Holy Saturday, and in the joyful wonder of the Easter season that follows all, God expresses His love for us, His yes for us, and grace is given freely in abundance, never deserved.

Indeed, the Church’s theologians tell us that in the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood given up for us, God invites us to encounter Him continuously in that very act of self-giving love. From it, the Church derives its very life and strength. We learn to love by modeling ourselves after His love. We find strength to love by nourishment in His love. It is a mystery of the faith that the more we give of ourselves as Christ gave, the more we receive, and the more we leave of ourselves behind, the better able we are to love God and others. We experience the fruit of love not by warm feelings or sentimentality, but by becoming like Christ.

As the secular world celebrates its own idea of love, let us celebrate the fullness of authentic love. Let us give of ourselves, and approach Him who gave Himself to us – at Mass, at adoration (perhaps the Diocese’s own Cor Jesu), or in the simple presence of a tabernacle. In this season, let us remember that we are His. Let us love Him who loved us first.

For more information of Cor Jesu, a weekly event for young adults during Lent that includes adoration, confession, and Mass at St. Ursula's in Bethlehem, click here.


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