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Isn't it odd that both Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day this year? If you ask me, it's a clear case of divine providence.
In A.D. 325 the Council of Nicaea decided that Easter would be celebrated the Sunday following the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.
In other words, without going into too much detail, the date we celebrate Easter is the result of a sort of astronomical convergence. This year, there's also a fascinating religious and cultural convergence on the calendar: Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day.
Are there two more culturally different days than Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday?
The former is associated with flowers and candy; the last with dark smudges on people's foreheads. On Valentine's Day, people expect romance. On Ash Wednesday, it's about repentance and self-denial. The words you need to remember on Valentine's Day are "I love you." But on Ash Wednesday, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return."
These days just don't seem to fit together, but that's because we've forgotten the real history of Valentine's Day. No, not the corporate creation of greeting card companies, but the day to remember the third-century Christian martyr: Valentinus of Rome.
Not a lot is known about Valentinus, but the most-widely accepted version of his martyrdom is that he ran afoul of the emperor Claudius II. Claudius had prohibited marriage in Rome because he believed that "Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families."
Valentinus defied the emperor by marrying couples in secret. He was caught and executed on or about February 14.
Whether the story happened exactly that way or not, every ancient reference to Valentinus associates him and February 14th with martyrdom and sacrifice. And that's fitting for the observance of Lent, which also begins today.
Our culture's view of love and romance is so twisted and dangerous, it only seems appropriate to celebrate this Valentine's Day with repentance.
Now don't get me wrong: romantic love, what C.S. Lewis called "Eros," is not wrong. In fact it's a gift from God. As Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, when rightly ordered, eros causes us to toss "personal happiness aside as a triviality and [plant] the interests of another in the center of our being."
Romantic love can be, as Lewis put it, "a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival."
And that's the proper place of eros ... not as an end in and of itself, but as a means--something that points beyond itself--and points our hearts beyond ourselves to a higher love, agape, a love that only comes from God Himself.
Lent turns our focus to that total self-giving love of God, that love that caused God to become man and live and die as one of us, for our sakes, despite our sin and rebellion.
The sexual revolution has, in so many ways, disordered eros, treating it as an end, not a means. But twisted eros is no longer selfless and life-giving. It becomes a sort of mutant sensuality, that creates the selfish and damaging brokenness our culture is being forced to reckon with this year.
Today, Ash Wednesday, reminds us that there's more... more to life than sensual pleasures, more to love than the shriveled-up version that has captivated our Western imaginations.
So today, ask yourself, "how am I responding to so great an expression of love as what God has shown us?" Valentinus's response was to give up his own life.
For us too, a kind of "death" is required--a death to self, a death to the desires that our culture treats as ultimate.