Christians are in for a strange beginning to Lent this year as we celebrate both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, concurrently, for the first time since the end of World War II. In response, many Catholic dioceses around the globe are effectively canceling Christians’ ability to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 by maintaining the Ash Wednesday norms of fasting from alcohol, meat and — let’s face it — fun.
The church understandably wants to sustain a healthy and holy sobriety on this ancient Christian day that marks Jesus’ journey toward the cross. But Christians should think twice about separating a celebration of romance from the solemnity of Ash Wednesday, an occasion focused on mortality. This “Ash Wednesday Valentine’s Day” gives us an opportunity to reconsider what love is and what love is not.
For a Christian, the rock band Boston got it right in 1976: Love is “more than a feeling.” We doubt the authenticity of the Kay Jewelers, empty-shelled love that marks the bourgeois celebration of modern-day Valentine’s Day. Christian love is less about feeling and more about action. It’s gritty. It’s messy. It hurts. In fact, we distrust a love that doesn’t suffer and costs nothing. Paul puts this reality simply in his letter to the Corinthians. He tells us that a love only spoken, but not acted upon, is as worthless as a “clashing cymbal,” while a love that’s performed in deed “always perseveres.”
In short, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent is the ideal antidote to Valentine’s Day exuberance. The very first act of Lent reveals this reality. By receiving and wearing the ashes formed into a sign of the cross on their foreheads, Christians are making the bold claim that we believe in a love that loves so deeply that it is willing to suffer and even die for another.
The story of the feast’s patron Saint Valentine of Rome might shed some light. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has acknowledged that Valentine and the legends surrounding him were historical fiction. But in each of these hagiographies of the Roman priest, Valentine is killed for his love of the poor, his love of Jesus Christ and his love of God. And strangely enough, though this man and his legends are myths, his “example” of giving up his life for another human person has become a cornerstone for this festival of love.
The early Christian community co-opted the Greek word “agape” to describe Jesus’ love for the human race. Agape is a love that is so deep that it’s willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of another. It’s the claim of Christianity and its gospel in a nutshell.
Today such a grand idea seems out of place amid what Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed the globalization of superficiality — an emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism. As Francis reminds us, authentic love challenges us “to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.”
But that reality is difficult today. When we can block out the ugly sounds of the world with our earphones, our perceptions remain shallow. When we can skim and scroll through our news, we do not have to internalize the suffering of others and, in turn, prevent ourselves from suffering under the unbearable brokenness of our world. When we can “friend” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — if necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work of encounter, confrontation and reconciliation, then our relationships become superficial, artificial and incomplete.
But whether we see it, agape is still alive. It is alive in anyone who has suffered intense loss and kept moving, who has made the decision to love another with no promise of a reward, who has doubted the existence of God and yet prayed anyway and who has endured suffering for the sake of someone else and found great strength in doing so.
Ash Wednesday and the subsequent Lenten season, then, is a time to learn how to love again. This can go beyond creed or faith. It is an invitation to everyone who wants to find the fullest measure of living. Now is a good time to ask ourselves what we can give up this season to enrich our sense and practice of agape. In doing so, we can find a new experience of love that can make us whole and can set us free.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed some language about St. Valentine to Pope Francis.