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VALENTINE’S DAY AND ASH WEDNESDAY

February 10, 2018

At the end of January, Clare and I were having a calendar session looking ahead to the month of February. We penciled in birthdays and anniversaries and other special occasions.

I asked, “Do you know what February 14 is?”

“Yes. That is Valentine’s Day,” she answered. “Have you made arrangements for dark chocolate with almonds?”

“No. The fourteenth is Ash Wednesday,” I answered. “I thought we would fast and go to church.”

“Don’t try to make a sacred day more holy than it already is,” said my wife. “You can fast and have ashes if you wish. I’ll have a good steak, a loaded baked potato, and dark chocolate with almonds!”

I laughed. This woman I have been married to for nearly fifty-three years is a lady of deep devotion. But in her heart of hearts she is a party girl.

It is a strange occurrence that doesn’t happen often, but this year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide. What are we to make of this? Must we choose between the two?

Valentine’s Day, the lovers’ holiday, traces its roots to a raucous annual Roman festival. In ancient Roman mythology, Juno was the goddess of love and marriage.  Her feast day was celebrated on February 15.  Each year the Romans conducted a three-day party called Lupercalia, which was, in essence, an early version of the “Dating Game.” Eligible young men and women who were single but old enough to be married, gathered for the celebration, complete with plenty of food, wine, and the inevitable matchmaking.

Couples brought together during Lupercalia were often struck by love at first sight.  The Romans believed that fluttering invisibly in their midst was the lesser god Cupid who fired his arrows indiscriminately.  They thought that an unsuspecting subject struck by Cupid’s arrow would fall in love with the next person who came into view. Interestingly, marriages often resulted from the matchmaking at Juno’s feast.

The pagan festival remained popular well into the fifth century A.D., years after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christian church changed the festival to the feast day of St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr.

In the third century A.D. Roman Emperor Claudius II, seeking to bolster his army, forbade young men to marry. A young priest disobeyed the ban by performing marriages in secret. During the persecutions of Christians under Claudius, the young priest visited those who were in prison, giving them comfort and consolation.

Because of his defiance of the emperor, the priest was beheaded on February 14, 270, during the Feast of Lupercalia, martyred on the altar of the goddess Juno.  Later canonized by the church, he became known as St. Valentine.

St. Valentine’s Day in our culture has become a time to express romantic love with chocolate, flowers, and heart-shaped cards. But there is more to genuine love than candy and roses.

That love is defined beautifully in I Corinthians 13.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

I could not have been any more smitten when I first saw Clare across the crowded cafeteria at Furman University.  We were both sophomores in the middle of first semester exams.  A study break in the cafeteria offered coffee, hot chocolate, and doughnuts.  I went for the food.  I found Clare. For me, it was love at first sight, but it has grown to be much deeper.

In the English language, the word love is one of the most confusing and one of the most important, especially on Valentine’s Day.  Valentine cards, heart-shaped boxes of candy, and flower arrangements all convey the message of love. Sadly, the love of Valentine’s Day is often fleeting.

During my fifty-three years of pastoral ministry, numerous couples have come to me for counseling.  The conversation often begins with, “I just don’t love him anymore” or “I don’t feel in love the way I did when I first met her.”

Can we find a love that lasts?

Our conversations are seasoned with the word that is intended to convey the deepest and dearest human emotion. The words “I love chocolate” hardly express the same sentiment as “I love my child” or “I love my spouse.”

The Greek language of the first century makes a clear distinction between feeling in love and being in love.

Eros is the word used for the spine-tingling feeling of love.  Eros was also the name of one of the lesser Greek gods whose Latin counterpart was Cupid.  Love at first sight, according to the Romans, was the work of Cupid.  Our Valentine expressions so often convey the love known as eros.

Agape is the Greek word used in the Bible to describe faithful, committed love. The Apostle Paul defines agape as the love that never fails.  Agape is not a feeling; it is a decision, an act of the will.

The relationship between eros and agape is like that of a flowering vine and a sturdy trellis.  Agape, the strong support of committed love, endures in the hottest drought of summer and holds steady through the icy cold of winter.  It bears all things and never fails.  If the trellis of agape is in place, the fragrant flower of eros has something on which to cling. It can grow more beautiful year after year, even in the autumn of life.  Both eros and agape represent important dimensions of love in a healthy marriage.  One prompts us to fall in love; the other enables us to stay in love.

A young couple stands at the altar to repeat their marriage vows:  “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”  These young people have almost no idea what they are pledging to each other. Those who witness the marriage know the newly weds will not always feel love toward each other.  The important question is this: are they committed to love each other whether they feel love or not?  If that commitment is strong, the exhilaration they experience on their wedding day will be a part of their relationship for many years to come. Valentine’s Day can be memorable for them year after year.

An elderly couple sits in a hospital room, hand in hand, one at the bedside of the other.  They gaze into each other’s eyes, both knowing that before long one will leave the other in the separation of death.  “I love you,” he whispers.  “I love you, too,” she responds.  They exchange this simple reassurance they have shared many times for nearly sixty years.  Their love is not a capricious feeling.  It is strong and sturdy, deeply committed and unfailing.  Their love is a love that lasts.

So, on February 14, what about the coincidence that Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent?

When I was a boy and a member of a Baptist church, the observance of Ash Wednesday was a strange custom to me. I though it must be the day to clean out the fireplace after the winter. When friends came to school with a cross of ashes on their foreheads I was curious, but thought asking would be rude.

The season of Lent was also an unknown concept to me. Because I was unfamiliar with the word, I thought it was the season of lint, maybe a time to clean out the vent on the clothes dryer. I heard my friends talking about giving up something for Lent. Boy, was I confused!

In our sophomore year of college, Clare and I started dating each other. She was a Methodist. I had a lot to learn, and she had a lot to teach me. She tried to teach me how to dance, but, alas, I was dancing impaired. She did teach me about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. I warmed to these ancient Christian practices that were so new to me.

Eventually, I joined other Christians at the altar on Ash Wednesday for the imposition of ashes. I began to see Lent as a time for spiritual renewal. Now, I view Lent as a season of love.

When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment,

He responded,  The first is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In response to a pointed question Jesus speaks about love for God and love for others. Of course, our closest neighbor is our marriage partner.

But how do we learn to love in these two ways?

Like most important lessons in life we learn by example. The Apostle John puts it this way. “Let us love one another; for love is of God…. for God is love.”

As a Christian pastor, I believe this is the greatest love. It is our supreme example. Charles Wesley called it, “Love divine, all loves excelling.”

If you have a sweetheart, by all means celebrate St. Valentine’s Day with hearts and flowers. But whether you have a significant other in your life or not, celebrate the day by recalling the words of Jesus to love God and love others with agape love.

Tell the story of St. Valentine to your children and grandchildren. And keep in mind the example of divine love for all people. Then, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day will go together beautifully, especially if you are married to a party person.

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