True Love and Ashes

By Joel Padgett

Connecting Faith and Life

This past Wednesday was both St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Two events that — at least in the world’s eyes — would tend to make for very strange bedfellows. Whereas some may have begrudgingly lamented fasting and abstinence on a day that typically relishes in chocolatey indulgence and others may have secretly rejoiced that God somehow provided them with the perfect excuse to get out of a lovely night on the town (in case you’re wondering, He didn’t … you’re still on the hook), I personally find the otherwise star-crossed occasion to be a happy coincidence and an opportunity to reflect on “true love” and “sacrifice.” Because at the end of the day, you really don’t get one without the other, and St. Valentine attested to that in his own flesh.

St. Valentine was a third century bishop who was beaten and beheaded in Rome during times of Christian persecution. Tradition holds that he helped Christian couples get married within the Church (that is, according to the Church’s rites), which is no small matter when you know that such a thing was punishable by death. This helps to explain how he became a patron saint of “courtly love” and happy marriages. However, it wasn’t because he was a “hopeless romantic” that he took those risks. Rather, it was because he was very much a hope-filled man who had fallen in love with the greatest love of all. His hope rested in Christ, and it was to Christ that he had given his heart. His love for Christ moved him to share his faith with those who did not yet know Christ, and it was for the love of Christ that he willingly laid down his own life, just as Christ had laid down His life for him upon the cross.

True love is to lovingly give of ourselves for the good — the authentic well-being — of the person we love. And giving of ourselves, without seeking ourselves, always comes at a personal cost. It entails sacrifice. A sacrifice that I personally believe is well worth it, but it still costs. Love gives meaning to sacrifice, and sacrifice attests to love’s authenticity. Ultimately, isn’t this the real reason behind the ashes, fasting and abstinence? If these acts don’t help us to grow in our ability to deny selfish tendencies and to more fully and lovingly give of ourselves to others, have we not perhaps either missed or misconstrued their purpose?

When ashes were sprinkled over our heads in the form of a cross, we heard either the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Both of which are important. On the one hand, we are reminded of this life’s fleeting nature (and indirectly of the fact that we are not God), and on the other hand, we are reminded of what we ought to strive for with the little time that we do have: repentance, conversion, putting on the mind and heart of Christ, orienting our life and all of our priorities — big and little — more fully toward Christ, being purified of all that is not Christ-like within us, etc. And at the heart of being Christ-like lies a two-fold commandment: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (cf. Mk 12:30) and loving one another (and ourselves) as Christ loves us (cf. Mk 12:31; Jn 15:12).

As this year’s Lent kicked off under the auspices of love, let us allow true, sacrificial love to become the sweet aroma of our entire Lent. Whatever our individual Lenten sacrifices may be, let us keep in mind that they all ought to be oriented toward helping us fall more deeply in love with He who is Love itself, as well as toward loving all whom He loves as He loves them. By God’s good grace, if St. Valentine’s Day was marked by this sort of love, indeed if all relationships — romantic and otherwise — were marked by this sort of love, the world would be far closer to the type of world that we would want those whom we love to live in!