Chocolate, Hot Dates, and Contrition: Valentine’s Day and Lent
“I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.“
This year, February 14 is both Saint Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent in which Christians commit to fasting, almsgiving and other spiritual disciplines in preparation for Easter. How does one reconcile chocolates, hot dates, fasting and contrition? Perhaps Saint Valentine himself offers an answer.
Who Was Saint Valentine?
It is not certain whether Valentine was a priest in Rome or a Bishop from another Roman territory, but around the year 270 A.D. on February 14, Emperor Claudius II had him executed. According to one tradition, Claudius, wildly unpopular, was having trouble recruiting for the vast army necessary to keep the peace. Avoiding the simple conclusion that not many people liked him or wanted to support him, he surmised that the problem of low recruitment was because Roman men were too attached to their wives and families. To remedy this, Claudius essentially outlawed love: all engagements and marriages were banned in Rome. Considering that it was in his best interest to at least maintain, if not grow, the population base from which he might recruit an army, this was not a very wise or sustainable policy. Be that as it may, it was indeed the Emperor’s policy. Valentine, thinking it inhuman and unjust, continued to perform marriages in secret. When discovered, he was dragged before the Prefect of Rome and duly sentenced to death by a sustained beating followed by beheading.
Fidelity in Love, Fidelity in Lent
There are historical problems with this story. Some biographies merely state that Valentine refused to renounce Christ when the Emperor demanded that he do so. Like so many other early Christians, he was sentenced to a cruel death on these grounds alone. What is sure is that Valentine chose to remain faithful, and it is this kind of fidelity in all things that unites both the amorous protestations of love that mark Saint Valentine’s Day as we now know it, as well as the disciplines of Lent. In Lent, as in love, we choose to remain faithful to the thing that matters the most. As in all commitments of any consequence, this fidelity requires the renouncement of other possibilities.
The discipline of Lent is our resolve to say “no” to the creaturely comforts of this world, which are passing away, and to keep our eyes turned towards the eternal. We look beyond the ripples and the dancing light on the surface of the water in order to fathom the mysterious depths. Do we not do the same when we truly love another? Do we not choose to look towards this one alone, to see beyond the surface – both its beauties and its blemishes – into the depths of the heart of our beloved? Love, like Lent, is a discipline, and true love means limiting the possibilities for the sake of authentic intimacy with another.
To love is to offer. Love is sacrificial. One can only have it when it has been given away. Whether we’re giving sweets as a sign of love, or whether we are abstaining from sweets as a sign of love, Lent and Valentine’s Day both come down to love. You might still wonder how we are to reconcile penitence and love. I suggest that you get married and you’ll soon find out!
Come Practice Lent With Us
You are invited to share in this Lenten experience with us and deepen your participation in Christ by attending one of our Christian spiritual retreats. During this season, we are offering a mid-week silent retreat, introductory programs in contemplative prayer, and our silent contemplative prayer immersion retreats that we call prayer vigils.