by Heather Bock
If you aren’t of the high church variety, you might not have noticed that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fell on the same day today. That’s right, combine a day to commemorate our mortality expressed by dark gray ashes smeared on foreheads in the shape of a cross with a day to honor love accompanied with bright red and pink heart-shaped candy, stuffed animals, and balloons. They just don’t seem to go together, do they?
Or do they?
Valentine’s Day is, of course, a day to celebrate love, a day to show love to our significant others. It was a day apparently provided by the Catholic church as a replacement for a pagan festival celebrated each year on February 15 (history.com). No one really knows now why they chose St. Valentine as the patron saint of this new day of love, nor is there much knowledge about St. Valentine at all, but several theories circulate.
One story about him recounts that he was in jail and brought sight to the eyes of the judge’s daughter; another variation has him healing the jailer’s daughter, later leaving her a note signed, “your Valentine.” That last one sounds a little too fitting with today’s traditions to me. Another story is told about him marrying couples, either Christians or soldiers, neither of which could be legally married (catholic.org). The one story agreed upon is that he was martyred for his faith on February 14.
Our day of love is named after a man who is best known for giving up his life out of love for God.
What is love anyway? Is it a feeling we have for a significant other that leads us to want to show physical affection and give that person chocolate and flowers? Is it something we have no control over, like Elvis sang in “I Can’t Help Falling in Love”? Does love choose you, or is love a choice?
Sure, we have feelings for those we love, but I would argue that love isn’t just a feeling. Feelings ebb and flow over the years, and we can’t depend on them. If we make a lifelong commitment to another person before God, family, and friends in the height of romantic feeling, we can’t break that commitment when that feeling wanes amidst the pressures of life. When no abuse is taking place, the feelings should be used as an indicator of work that needs to be started to renew the relationship. Often this will take self-sacrifice for the good of the relationship and the good of the other.
Wait, we’re talking about self-sacrifice on Valentine’s Day? Well, after looking at the little we know about the namesake of this day, a man who sacrificed himself entirely out of love for God, I start to think it’s not too far-fetched. In addition, it turns out to be fitting, after all, that Valentine’s Day fell on Ash Wednesday this year.
Ash Wednesday isn’t just a day to remember “you are dust and to dust you will return.” It’s also the start of the Lenten season, a time when we remember Christ’s sacrifice in giving up the perfections of Heaven for a time to be severely mistreated, rejected, and killed on Earth. We commemorate what He gave up by giving up something of our own. As we do this, we remember the reason He gave it all up and suffered: out of love for us. St. Valentine followed in Christ’s bloody footsteps. We valentines should be doing the same in our love.
For love is not just a feeling, something to make you feel good. Love is a laying down of our lives for another person. “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:16).
What does self-sacrifice for our love look like? Here’s a start: “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8).