This coming Valentine’s Day will be different, a romantic celebration marked by ashes. Here’s why married couples should welcome that.
For Valentine’s Day this year, there will be no giant red hearts full of chocolate candy. There will be no fancy steak dinners with your beloved. That’s because this year, the feast of St. Valentine is the same day as Ash Wednesday. Yes, the day known for romance and exquisite dinner dates, flowers, and chocolate will this year be celebrated by Catholics everywhere with fasting, penance, and ashes.
You’re going to have to insert your own lame joke about marriage and penance here because, to me, the conjunction of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is a rare gift. It’s peak romance.
Marriage isn’t all gushy feelings and physical attraction. It isn’t wining and dining, or red roses and diamond earrings. Marriage is those things some of the time. It ought to be some of those things some of the time. But not all the time. Romance runs much, much deeper. It goes to the core of who we are and becomes a total self-gift.
Romance = desire
Romance is desire. We want that other person in our life. I want to be near my wife and see her smile, raise children with her, and grow old with her. But if my desire remains at the surface level of only desiring her for what she can give to me, if I only desire that fluttering spark or romance at every single instant of every day, then our love really isn’t romance. It’s selfishness.
Real desire is like a wound on the heart. It searches out the beloved and empties itself out entirely for the other. Romantic desire is the desire to make my wife happy and be faithful to her regardless of whether I feel like it or not at any given moment.
This includes fasting, penance, and ashes. Daily, as a husband I’m learning to fast from my lazy and selfish habits. The work of my lifetime is to increasingly abstain from vices and become the best version of myself. This self is the best gift I can give my wife. Penance, by which I mean the decision to actively heal past damage I’ve done to our relationship, is accomplished by developing a more virtuous character. This is also a gift. It’s how I show my wife that I love her and don’t take our relationship for granted.
Then, of course, there are ashes. Every moment I get share with my wife is precious, the bond so strong that it’s vowed until death. Nothing is more romantic than total commitment in the face of our sure mortality, the reckless way we human beings have of risking everything for our beloved.
How Valentine became a saint
These musings aren’t my own eccentric preconceptions. Consider the life of St. Valentine. He was a priest who lived about 200 years after Christ in the Roman Empire. At that time, the emperor, Claudius, made it illegal for couples to be married before a Catholic priest. He was trying to destroy the basis for Christian marriage in the hopes that folks would abandon the faith and return to pagan Roman cults. Valentine quietly ignored the emperor and continued helping couples marry. This is how, in the first place, he came to be associated with romantic love.
Eventually, he was caught and arrested for the crime of witnessing marriages. Valentine was thrown in prison and condemned to death. There, he learned that his jailer had a blind daughter. On the night before he died, he wrote her a note, telling her how much God loved her. But how could she read the note? She was blind. On the next day, when Valentine was martyred (hence the color red being associated with his feast day), the jailer’s daughter was healed. She could see. She read the love note, which was signed at the end, “From your Valentine.”
This is the deepening of romantic love; the second reason Valentine is associated with romantic love. His life and words are a reflection of the total self-gift of Christ for his Church.
God’s romantic love for us
God’s love for us, when speaking metaphorically, is romantic. He desires to love us the way a bridegroom desires his bride. The romance of his divine love is total, so strong that he gives his life for us, pours himself out in fasting and ashes. St. Valentine shares that love, sacrificing himself in service to the people under his priestly care. He greatly desired to assist them towards happiness. May the love between every husband and wife be so strong.
Ash Wednesday is the blueprint for romantic love. Perhaps this is why G.K. Chesterton calls Christianity a whirling, romantic adventure animated with the belief that all things are animated by love. Maybe it’s why in his letters, Tolkien calls the Blessed Sacrament the one great thing to love on this earth, containing, “romance, glory, honor, fidelity.” That love doesn’t remain inside the Church. It spills out and becomes, as Tolkien tells his son, Christopher, “the true way of all your loves on earth.” The divine romance assists us in all our other relationships, bringing to them “eternal endurance.”
The note that Valentine signed for the daughter of his jailer, the one assuring her of God’s love, was the culmination of a love so perfect and relentless that it transfigured his life. Through God’s love for him, he was able to make himself, too, into a living Valentine’s note, a romance to which he gave his heart and soul.