Sometimes the calendar just lines up perfectly. As evidence, witness the fact that February 14th, Valentine’s Day, is the first day of this year’s Lenten season. St. Valentine was a Christian martyr in the Roman Empire. (In fact, there were several St. Valentines and it’s not entirely clear which one we’re honoring.)
Martyrs aside, the day of heart shaped chocolates, champagne drenched dinners, red lingerie and romance seems to stand in stark relief against the somber season of fasts, prayers and devotions that lead to our remembrance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And yet I’ve learned that when things seem peculiar, it’s often because God is trying to make a point. So I think the conjunction of dates makes perfect sense. Because love may begin with flirtation, and love is certainly sustained by pleasure and delight. But in the end, love requires commitment and sacrifice. In fact, true love will have it no other way.
When we are young and first ‘in love,’ every moment together is a time of wonder. We gift and giggle, kiss and hold hands, we dance through the night and talk till the dawn. There is novelty in every new discovery we make about our beloved. This is exactly how it should be.
In time we realize that we treasure that person so much that we want to keep discovering them, and being discovered, for the rest of our lives. We learn to care more for our beloved than for ourselves. Love ceases to be a bubbly, silly feeling in the stomach and becomes a constant series of decisions and acts in the best interest of the partner and the union. Love becomes less noun, more verb.
When first we try to really love, we learn that our partner is imperfect and that they deserve our love anyway. When we actually mature in love, we learn that we are the imperfect ones, and that we don’t deserve the love we receive. Eventually we are humbled that someone would love us so much (knowing the person in the mirror as we do so well).
Love eventually matures from constant fun to a thing married people call ‘life.’ Love is there through the courtship, but also learning about your partner’s crazy family. Love is there through the beautiful wedding. But also through the chaos of arranging it and trying to keep costs, fist-fights, drunken brawls, ex-lovers and nutty uncles under control.
Love, born in romantic dances and sweet notes, moves from weekends away and intimate brunches to ‘I have to work all weekend,’ and ‘I didn’t realize you were so messy!’ Love learns that ‘pregnancy means vomiting and swelling,’ and ‘paying bills isn’t as much fun as going on dates.’ And love grows ever more solid.
At some point, for everyone, there will be times when love means giving up. We give up our time, our money, we give up our own hopes and desires to see to those of our darlings, whether spouses or children. Love means a lifelong, hand in hand pilgrimage through trouble and struggle; a journey which bonds us ever more deeply in common cause.
Ultimately, deep love, the truest love, must also walk through death. And from what I’ve seen in my life, all those struggles (and even that final loss) merely serve to polish love and make it shine ever more brightly until seems to illuminate the very shadows of death.
This, of course, is where Lent comes in. Because the love of God demonstrated in the Passion of Christ (which Lent leads to) is the ultimate example, the ultimate anchor and source of power for all of the real loves of this life. In Jesus we find the lover who never waivers. The one who knows all of our secrets and loves us anyway. Jesus, who walks through our joys and carries us through our troubles, and who is ever present in both mysterious and mundane. Jesus who pursues us with a passion, and by means of the Passion.
Jesus, the one who will forgive our blind, stupid, immature errors. Jesus who also forgives our willfulness, our intentional cruelty, our selfish grasping, our infidelity of body or of mind; even (as we see in St. Peter) our rejection of the one who loves us best of all. Jesus, who will accept us if only we reach out to Him in humility and repentance; and in the process will transform us. A thing which all great loves do, of course.
All of this love, all of this forgiveness, patience, and pursuit make up the greatest love story of all, as He tries to lead us to Him, and to all the benefits that romance has to offer.
So enjoy the romance! Drink the champagne, eat the chocolate, kiss, embrace, gaze into your lover’s eyes. But if you are so inclined, remember that all our romances are shades of the great romance of our souls, stretching across time and eternity.
All of which makes the confluence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day seem like perfect timing to me.