This year, Valentine’s Day, the secular holiday of romantic love, falls on the same day as Ash Wednesday. Valentine’s Day is usually celebrated with gifts of chocolate and candy, while Ash Wednesday is celebrated with fasting. For a chocolate lover like myself, and all those of us with a “sweet tooth”, fasting and candy do not go together: they are in tension.
But is there something we can learn from this tension? Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love. Ash Wednesday is a celebration of penitence and self-denial, the start of a forty-day commitment to prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Romantic love? Self-denial? They do not seem very compatible, do they?
But in truth, genuine love and self-denial are connected. Genuine love is not just a matter of feelings of attraction towards another, it is a commitment to love the other more than one loves oneself. St. Valentine, the third century Roman martyr after whom Valentine’s Day is named, is not only the patron saint of romantic love, he is also the patron saint of happy marriages. The marriage promises that spouses make to each other on their wedding day include being true to the other in good and bad times alike, whether sick or healthy, until “death do we part”. Such promises are not mere sweetness and light, hearts and cupids, they constitute a serious commitment, a commitment to placing the good of the other above one’s own wishes and desires. This is self-denial, the very thing that Ash Wednesday is all about.
But what is the full message of Ash Wednesday? It is a day of fasting, celebrated with ashes, a reminder of human mortality. It starts the season of Lent, a season of penitence and self-denial, prayer, fasting and alms-giving that ends with the “triduum”, the three holy days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The middle day of the triduum, Good Friday, is the memorial of Jesus’ torture and death on the cross. This seems far too gloomy to be the same stuff as Valentine’s day, with its cupids, flowers and sparkly hearts. But love that persists despite hardship is the real thing, of which the sparkly hearts are merely the imitation. True love is love so genuine that it keeps loving even in bad times, even when sickness and trouble come, until death. This is the love that Jesus shows on the cross: he who is God, powerful and strong, chose to become weak, to suffer and die rather than strike out in anger, however justified, towards wrongdoers. The message is clear: no matter what we do to Jesus, even if we torture and kill him, he will never stop loving. In the end, Jesus’ love overcame death itself: on Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead, love triumphed over tragedy, life over death. This we celebrate as Easter, the resurrection of the Lord, the hope that sustains all Christians, the true “sparkliness” of heart that outshines the tawdry trappings of commercial gifts. Jesus shows us the truth about love, he shows us what love can really be. Love like his is a gift far more costly and precious than chocolates and flowers, it is love that keeps loving, no matter what.