It’s a challenging juxtaposition when Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same date. This hasn’t happened since 1945. The celebration of romance and love, with hearts and candy, conflicts with the fasting and abstinence of the penitential season of Lent.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in such a coincidence.
In his The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky describes genuine love as “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” He was acknowledging that romance is one thing; love, another.
Love in the fullest sense is a choice for the good of another.
St. Paul described it centuries ago: “Love is patient…kind…not jealous…not pompous…not inflated…not rude…seeks not its own interests…not quick-tempered…broods not over injury…does not rejoice over wrong-doing but rejoices with the truth…bears all things…believes all things…hopes all things…endures all things” (1 Cor 13). Love can be harsh and dreadful.
And yet love is supposed to be the hallmark of a Christian’s life. The First Letter of John draws the bold conclusion that “God is love,” and that “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar!”
Jesus gave us the example of the fullest, most sincere kind of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). And what he did through his passion and death, he expected of his followers: “This command I give you: love one another” (Jn 15:17).
The romantic love celebrated on St Valentine’s Day is good, but love in the fullest sense is much more. Feelings come and go, but choices can endure: “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.”
The development of such death-defying love is a life-long process. It takes discipline, perseverance, compassion, forgiveness, selflessness –it requires within the human mind and heart the injection of divine love. It is possible to love fully only when human love is empowered by the divine.
That’s where Lent comes in. Lent is the season for the spiritual exercises which strengthen and refine the ability to love. Prayer, fasting and alms-giving (the traditional penances of the season) are empty ritual if they do not lead the practitioner to greater love.
Maybe that’s why, on rare occasions, the beginning of Lent falls on February 14. Perhaps there’s a lesson in such a coincidence.
It would be like our God (the God of surprises) to put Lent right in the middle of Valentine’s Day!