Valentine’s Day and Lent Share a Common Thread
This year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fell on the same date, February 14. They appear to advocate different ideas; the former celebrates romantic and conjugal love; the latter marks the beginning of the Lenten Season, a period of penance and conversion. Valentine’s Day is a day of joy. Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us, in the words of the priest distributing ashes, “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”
However, it may be providential that this year these two special days fall on the same date. God, in His infinite wisdom, has arranged the calendar to impart a divine message.
The goal of Lent is for us to purify ourselves through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so as to be ready to celebrate the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thus the Lenten penance is not an end in itself, but a means to our ultimate end: to unite ourselves to God through Christ and in the bond of the Holy Spirit.
This union with Jesus has a conjugal dimension. Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is His Bride. God’s love for us is beautifully set forth in the Old Testament in the Song of Songs, and in the Prophets. The Lord-Yahweh tells His People of Israel in Isaiah 54:4-10:
“Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. 5For your Maker is your husband– the LORD Almighty is his name- the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. 6The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit- a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. 7“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. 8In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer. 9“To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 10Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.”
Notice how God’s characteristics of Creator and Redeemer are linked to His role as Husband of Israel, His wife. As we shall briefly see, His role as Redeemer is beautifully expressed in His role as Husband of His People.
These two beautiful traditions, that of the Song of Songs and that of the Prophets, are taken up and fulfilled completely in Christ Himself. In the Gospels we find an anticipation of Jesus’ complete giving of Himself to His New People, the Church, when he identifies Himself as the Bridegroom. We read in the Gospel of St. Matthew 9:14-15 (with parallels in St. Mark 2:18-22 and St. Luke 5:33-39):
“14Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ 15Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”
Saint Paul developed this central Christian theme in Ephesians 5:25-33, where he said:
“25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” [Genesis 2:24] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
The Sacrificial Nature of Love and Lent
Witness Christ talks about man and wife and likens the relationship to “Christ and the Church.” In doing so, He demonstrates the essence of true conjugal love, to give unceasingly of self to one’s spouse, unconditionally till death. This passage from Saint Paul and the previous cited text from Isaiah mirror one another, witnessing the roles of Redeemer and Husband are linked.
Christ’s conjugal love for His Bride, the Church (and for all mankind), is also characterized by fecundity. A love that does not give life is no love at all. Love by his own nature always gives or is always open to life, physically and spiritually. Christ unites with His Church through Baptism (“by the washing with water through the word”, verse 26 above), engenders new sons and daughters of God. Likewise, Christian human conjugal love must always be open to life because it is and ought to be a reflection of Christ’s love for His Church.
Recall that Marriage is a Sacrament, which in turn is an efficacious sign instituted by Christ and given to His Church to communicate His grace, which is the Life of God in us (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1131). The key word here is “efficacious”. It means that married couples do in fact receive special graces under the Sacrament, these are not merely signs in the sense of symbols. Grace particular to the Sacrament of Marriage makes present the life-giving love between Christ and His Church. And the Trinity, as we know, mirrors the family; mother, father and child.
This is where the goals of both Lent and Saint Valentine’s Day coalesce. Lent’s aim is to purify us, so that we can unite ourselves to Christ more deeply when He comes at Easter as the Spouse of our souls. There is no deeper love than His. The essence of Saint Valentine’s Day is to celebrate Christian conjugal love, which for Catholics is personified best in the Sacrament of Marriage, which again parallels the love of Christ for His Church.
St. Valentine Pray for Us
Saint Valentine was third century martyr who was likely beheaded on February 14th at the command of the Roman Emperor, Claudius II. While his history is hazy, it is believed that he was imprisoned for defending marriage. Some say Claudius had prohibited the celebration of new marriages, because he wanted to enlist more young men in his army to expand even more his empire. But Valentine continued to preside over the marriages of Christian couples duly prepared for this Sacrament and aided persecuted Christians. He was beheaded for this sacrificial love of fellow Christians, just as Christ was crucified for His love in redeeming all of us.
God’s providential message in this year of Our Lord 2018 is very clear: let us take back and celebrate the true meaning of this dear Saint Valentine. In honoring marriage as he did, we help save our culture, and unite ourselves to Christ as the Husband of His Church and our souls.
Adolfo J. Castañeda, is HLI Director of Hispanic Education and HLI’s Miami Office.