This also occurred a few years back: in 2018, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day (and previously to that, in 1945). A Dominican parish in Cincinnati decided to make hay of it by sponsoring a special spiritual series for the season titled “Lent Is for Lovers.” Provocative but brilliant!
Everybody knows that Valentine’s Day is a holiday celebrating the joys of romantic love, but the whole of the liturgical season of Lent is dedicated to celebrating the greatest of all loves: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” — words spoken by Jesus as he entered into his Passion (John 15:13).
St. Valentine and God’s friendship
This co-incidence of celebrations is not coincidental. Valentine (+280), after all, was a saint who was also a martyr. His whole existence was about laying down his life for his Beloved. St. Valentine’s witness offers the perfect way to commence our Lent on Ash Wednesday.
According to the 13th- century classic lives of the saints “The Golden Legend,” the emperor Claudius one day confronted the venerable priest Valentine with these words: “Why do you not win our friendship by adoring our gods and abandoning your vain superstitions?” St. Valentine replied: “If you but knew the grace of God, you would turn your mind away from idols and adore the God who is in heaven.” Whereupon, St. Valentine was tortured and beheaded.
That is exactly what we want to do during Lent: to know the overwhelming grace of God, to turn our mind away from idols, and to adore the God of heaven precisely in order to live in his friendship. As ashes are placed on our forehead this Ash Wednesday, the priest will say to us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, Norway, explained the spiritual significance of this:
“When I remember I am dust I also recall that I was destined to be more. To say, on these terms, that I am dust is not degrading. It is God who degrades himself for love, stooping down from celestial realms to re-shape and re-inspirit humble matter.”
In other words, those ashes are the best of Valentines.
The perfect valentine
Who doesn’t want to get a valentine? But we crave a love that surpasses the sentimental. We want an ultimate love … and infinite love. And it has to be comprised of three things.
It has to be a love that comes to us as a gift. If instead it is something we need to “earn,” then it’s nothing but compensation — not real love. God loves us because he is good, not because we are. Ash Wednesday is the time to begin our begging for this gift. In the words of the 14th- century mystic Walter Hilton, “the lover of God is his friend, not because he has deserved to be, but because God in his merciful goodness has made him so by a very real pact.” Namely, the cross.
Second, it has to be a love that keeps declaring to us, It is necessary that you exist! In the short story “Sine, Cosine, Tangent” by American author Don DeLillo, the agnostic main character decides one Ash Wednesday to present himself for ashes. It becomes for him an occasion of powerful grace, for through it he knows himself to be wanted, chosen:
“I went to the altar rail and knelt, the priest approached and made his mark, a splotch of holy ash thumb-printed to my forehead. Dust you are. …”
The man begins to realize: “My parents were not Catholic. I didn’t know what we were. We were eat and sleep. We were Take Daddy’s Suit to the dry cleaner.” Yet that sacred impression to his forehead continues to impress him:
“But the robed priest and the small grinding action of his thumb implanting the ash. And unto dust you shall return. … I didn’t know what this was. … I wanted the stain to last for days and weeks.”
And third, the love has to be a love that is indestructible. However, that love comes to us through the destruction of God’s Son on the cross … and through his resurrection. The reason we mortify ourselves during Lent is to predispose ourselves, more and more, to be able to receive and hold fast to this indestructible love. For love is what penance is all about. “Every penance that increases love is good; any penance that narrows and preoccupies the soul is harmful” (Von Balthasar).
Ash Wednesday calls us to recommit ourselves to our only real priority, especially by doing away with the doubt that derails us. St. John of Ávila expresses it in a prayer we would do well to offer often this Lent:
“O God who are Love itself, how we wound you if we do not trust in you with all our hearts! If, after the favors you have shown us, and after having died for us, we do not feel confidence in you, we must be worse than very brutes. In the times that we offended you, you cherished us. You followed after us when we fled from you. You drew us to yourself. Please keep us from ever distrusting you or questioning whether you do love us and intend to save us.”
Being a valentine
Let’s start our Lent this Ash Wednesday giving others a lasting valentine — the miracle of Divine Love made possible through the Paschal Mystery:
“The ultimate miracle of Divine Love is this, that the life of the Risen Lord is given to us to give to one another. It is given to us through our own human loves” (Caryll Houselander).
After all, Lent is for lovers.