Next week, an odd juxtaposition of commemorations occurs when Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14, St. Valentine’s Day. On the surface, it would seem that the two remembrances couldn’t be further apart in meaning. Ash Wednesday invites Christians to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return. St. Valentine’s Day celebrates the power of love to give life meaning. Death and love, a seemingly odd combination.
But to contrast Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day is to view the two remembrances only on the surface. Ash Wednesday, according to some internet sources, has been celebrated for the last 1,000 years in the Western Christian calendar as the official beginning of the season of Lent. The ashes, placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross, invite Christians to begin a 40-day journey of repentance, of looking inward and acknowledging the ways we fall short of loving God and our neighbors. If Easter celebrated new life, the Lenten season leading up to Easter reminds Christians that we can’t experience new life until we die to our old self-centered attitudes and behaviors.
St. Valentine’s Day is both older and more recent than Ash Wednesday. Some historians suggest the Church replaced an ancient Roman holiday that celebrated fertility by focusing on the life of a saint named Valentine. The problem is that several figures in early Christian history are named Valentine, so we’re not sure who is being remembered on that day. By 1500, however, people were sending love messages on the day.
Having a bit of history out of the way, we can now ask if Ash Wednesday falling on St. Valentine’s Day is just an odd coincidence. Some people next Wednesday might be tempted to say, “I don’t want to think about death. St. Valentine’s Day is a day to focus on love and living.” But that will be to miss the lessons that love and death, when taken together, can offer.
We should first consider how both Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day are invitations to begin a journey. This is obvious with Ash Wednesday as the first day of the Lenten journey. But there is also subtle reference to a journey in the traditional St. Valentine’s Day expression “Be my Valentine.” To say or write “Be my Valentine” is to make a request of another person. “Be my Valentine” is different than “You are my Valentine.” There is the implied word “Please,” as in “Please be my Valentine.” The request invites a person one loves to love in return and to share the journey into the future.
Having St. Valentine’s Day fall on Ash Wednesday offers another lesson to ponder, that being the role of repentance in love. For love to last in a relationship, both partners have to be willing to admit when they behave selfishly. My spiritual father, John, described how in his 60-plus-year marriage to Mary they would both use the phrase “clearing the windshield” to describe the moments when they admitted their faults to one another. I can’t imagine a more fitting image. Selfishness, insisting on my way, clouds the vision in a relationship with a crash sure to follow. Dying to selfishness is critical not just in a person’s relationship with God; it’s also necessary in a lasting and loving relationship.
If death is found in love, so love is found in death. While we don’t know which person named Valentine is commemorated on Feb. 14, it seems likely that the original Valentine was a martyr, someone who died for love of his faith. Few of us will be called on to die for our faith, but we will know, if we are blessed, that love is stronger than death.
Perhaps, then we should rethink that phrase common to marriage ceremonies: “To love and cherish till death do us part.” Death doesn’t have the power to end what we feel for those we love. My spiritual father, John, died several years ago, but in so many ways John isn’t gone. I hear his voice, I hear the stories he was fond of telling, and I hear his laughter. Most of all, I feel as enveloped by John’s joy for life now as I was when he was alive.
The wisdom to be remembered this Feb. 14 is summarized well by two people named Paul. Paul McCartney wrote the lyric, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Nearly 2,000 years before, St. Paul expressed an even greater truth: “Love never ends.”
David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].