What are your plans for Valentine’s Ash Wednesday?
Sex and Death
The combination was bound to happen eventually; it will happen again in 2024 and 2029, then not again until the 22nd century. Most people I know personally or through social media have taken it fairly well. One person did wonder if, since some bishops lift the meat ban on St. Patrick’s Day when it falls on a Friday, maybe they’d lift the fasting and abstinence requirements for Valentine’s Day?
Oddly enough (for social media), no one tried to make the person feel stupid for asking. Politeness occasionally occurs on the Internet.
Of course, you can always celebrate Valentine’s Day early; you could even combine it with Mardi Gras today. (That’s what the Archdiocese of Chicago recommends.) But the Freudian juxtaposition of eros and thanatos, sex and death, represented by the rare combination ought to recall a deeper meaning and call forth a different symbolic act instead of the traditional gift-giving. I don’t want to know what you plan to give your Beloved. I want to know what you’d give up for them. Not just for the day, but for the rest of your life.
The Legend of St. Valentine
According to legend, Emperor Claudius II “Gothicus” (r. 268 – 270) was concerned that soldiers’ courage would suffer from worrying about the fates of their families should they die in combat. So he drafted only bachelors and issued an edict forbidding young men from marrying. The first time Valentine was caught marrying couples in secret, he converted his judge by curing his daughter of her blindness. Caught a second time, he stood trial before Claudius; ordered to abandon Jesus, Valentine refused and was sentenced to be beaten, stoned, and beheaded.
His last message, sent to the judge and his daughter, was signed, “from your Valentine.”
The legends recycled by CBN Network, courtesy of a Dublin priest, can be traced back no further than the High Middle Ages. We actually know very little about St. Valentine. In fact, the old Catholic Encyclopedia speaks of three, two of which, a priest and a bishop who might have been the same person, were both martyred in the third century and buried along the Via Flaminia near Rome. Pope St. Gelasius I (r. 492 – 496), who established the feast day, simply noted that his acts were “known only to God.” The only certainty is that St. Valentine — all two or three of them — were killed out of odium fidei, “hatred of the faith.”
Dying for the Other
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton takes advantage of his look-alike appearance to save the life of Charles Darnay by going to the guillotine for him. He doesn’t even particularly like Darnay. But he loves Darnay’s wife Lucie, though he has never violated the boundary separating them. And for love of his beloved, Carton will embrace the death intended for Darnay, much like St. Maximilian Kolbe took Franciszek Gajowniczek’s doom for the love of the Triune God and the Blessed Mother: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done ….”
But most of us will never have the opportunity to die for the sake of those we love, let alone complete strangers. Much more often will occur the opportunity to sacrifice something else for their sake — habits, moods, routines, career choices, companions, forms of entertainment, modes de vivre with which we’ve become comfortable. These are more difficult to recognize because we’re practically raised to believe that unconditional love means I don’t have to change for you.
Isn’t a love worth dying for a love worth dying to yourself for? If what you feel for the Beloved doesn’t make you want to be a better person for their sake, is it really love? But then, love, in the Christian vocabulary, isn’t an emotion but rather an action; in particular, an act of humility by which we place the Beloved and their needs ahead of ourselves and our own. It isn’t a sensation we feel but a choice we make.
Seeing Christ in the Beloved
On Ash Wednesday and for the seven weeks that follow, we’re called to remember that we are but dust, that we are sinful mortals doomed to return in body to the elements from which we were formed. However, at the end of this penitential period is the Feast of the Resurrection, in which divine Love transforms death into liberation from sin. So too does agapē transform eros into something more than merely animal reproduction, creating a gift to the Beloved of one’s entire life.
All sacrifices are gifts: we give up to the Beloved things we value precisely because we value the Beloved more. If we are called to see Christ in the face of the stranger, how much more are we called to see Him in the face of the one person in this world we love most! If, then, we do for others as we would do for the Lord (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), it follows that what we give up for the sake of others — especially for the Beloved — is what we give up for Him.
This Valentine’s Day, look at things you do and say that put stress on your relationship and give at least one up. Don’t look for a quid pro quo; don’t tell yourself, “Well, I’ll try it and see if it makes the relationship better;” don’t seek praise for it. Above all, don’t count the cost. Simply make a gift of it, a gift without strings. In doing so, you’ll bring more honor to the memory of Saint Valentine, who gave everything for love.