This past week, Latin Rite Catholics and many other Christians began their Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday. (Our Eastern Catholic family began Great Lent two days earlier on “Clean Monday,” and our Orthodox brothers and sisters begin their Great Lent tomorrow). Coincidentally, Ash Wednesday was also St. Valentine’s Day on our social calendar. As a result, some dioceses asked Catholics to move their Valentine’s Day celebrations to Tuesday, incorporating them into the already festive activities of Mardi Gras. The requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday took priority over fine romantic dining and the exchange of chocolates and heart-shaped candies, and bishops were not keen on granting a dispensation.
So how did you do… and what did you do? Did you move St. Valentine’s Day to Mardi Gras? Did you cheat a little and have some chocolate on Ash Wednesday? Did you forget Valentine’s Day altogether this year? For me, it wasn’t a problem. My family never celebrated Valentine’s Day on February 14th. Being one of eight sons, I am used to our “family Valentine’s Day” being February 15th—when all the chocolates were at least 50% off! (Of course, school—and dates!—didn’t move the celebration back a day, so I suppose I am more torn than I let on.)
“Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” is not exactly a romantic expression, but it does contain a theme that every romantic poet and playwright understands: how quickly our time on earth passes. The predominant cultural response to this memento mori is to embrace the Epicurean mindset: eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we shall die. The culture says carpe diem! and by that expression means for us to have as many pleasurable and joyful experiences as we can. We are led down the road of hedonism, hoping that the balance of pleasure will outweigh the inevitable pain and death. Knowing that we are, indeed, dust, we “rage, rage against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas famously wrote.
The Church also asks us to remember death and to seize the day, but it leads us on a path far more life-giving than hedonism. Instead of raging against death, we are invited to enter into the passion and death of Christ, through whom resurrection is possible. It puts life in a new perspective, measuring everything against an eternal horizon. It reminds us that although time is fleeting, love remains. Love will even conquer death. Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Concerning the Epicurean mindset, St. Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised: ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). But the dead are raised! “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life…” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
It is fortuitous, then, that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided this year. They both ask us to value and to reflect upon love. As Father Leo Patalinghug of EWTN’s Savoring Our Faith TV show noted, Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday afforded us a “perfect day to start Lent and to have that discussion of what love means.” As reported in The Pilot (the archdiocesan newspaper for Boston), Fr. Patalinghug hopes we gain a “deeper sense of what love really means — which at times requires sacrifice.” This is not the hedonistic way, which always leads to frustration because it is built on the false foundation of selfish individualism. This is The Way of Christ Jesus, who taught us that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
Valentine’s Day is now behind us, but love remains. Lent is the Church’s great period of sacrifice, preparing us to receive love and to give love more fully. We struggle, perhaps, to avoid the way of hedonism and selfish individualism that are so prominent in our culture, and so we pray with the Psalmist: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.” We make the prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus our own once again: Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine. After all, someday this earthly life will be behind us. Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. But love remains!