One does not usually associate Valentine’s Day with penitential practice. In fact, ideally, February 14th means quite the opposite. A lovely card with a heartfelt sentiment perched on a nightstand. A beautiful bouquet of roses delivered to the office. A nice box of chocolates waiting on the dining room table. A sumptuous dinner at a fancy restaurant. A romantic stroll through the park.
This year, for the first time in decades, Valentine’s Day happens to fall on Ash Wednesday. That means abstinence (no meat) and fasting (a full meal and two small meals not equaling one full meal) for Catholics. Should this put a damper on the day, though? Of course not! While a big steak dinner is out, all the other items are still okay (even if, for some, the candy will have to wait to be enjoyed until after Lent).
But what we should not lose sight of is that this blessed confluence of holidays provides us a rare opportunity to contemplate in a special way the Valentine that Jesus left for us: His passion, death, and resurrection that opened up heaven to those who accept this precious gift of salvation.
Solemnly meditating on Christ’s passion also puts us in solidarity with those for whom Valentine’s Day is most painful. The widows and widowers who recall special moments when their dearly departed was still with them. The husbands and wives who long to be reunited with spouses away on tours of duty. The women and men who remember happier days before a painful separation or divorce.
Even the St. Valentine who is remembered on this day was a martyr for love of the Faith in the time of Christian persecutions in the Roman Empire. When the priest at Mass wears red on this day, he is commemorating the blood the saint spilled, not a sentiment toward the holiday. In fact, the number of canonized saints with the name Valentine reaches double figures — and most of them gave their lives as well because of their complete devotion to Jesus.
So, it seems that love and suffering are intrinsically united. The deeper the affection, the more one is grieved when loss or separation from the beloved occurs. Also, the deeper the affection, the more one wishes to take away the suffering of the beloved when it occurs, even taking it upon one’s own self if it were possible.
We see this in the mother whose little girl is battling an aggressive form of cancer who would gladly undergo the chemo and radiation in her child’s place. We see this in the husband who would give anything to be the one enduring his wife’s crippling arthritis. We see this in the young fiancée whose critically injured betrothed hangs between life and death and who wishes it were him lying there instead of her. The examples are countless.
Our prayers for healing should be unceasing, but if the Lord does not grant our request to take away or take on physical pain, we are called to make any suffering he allows redemptive.
On the Cross, Jesus bore the full weight of evil and removed its power over us. He provided a new meaning for suffering by giving it redemptive power. By his grace we are able to unite our pain to his redemptive passion. St. Paul witnessed this when he wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
(Catholic Church, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults [Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006], 252.)
What Valentine could we ever receive that is better than this outpouring of love from the God who is Love (1 Jn 4:8)? And what better Valentine could we give Jesus than returning that love by offering up everything to Him, including our own suffering, whether it be physical or emotional?
Let us make this Valentine’s Day the beginning of forty days of ever deepening love for the Savior who gave to us His Heart, rent open by a lance, and for His Mother who felt keenly the sword of His suffering at the foot of the Cross (see Luke 2:35). May it be a forty-day Valentine to Jesus, becoming ever more resplendent with each sunrise.
As we prepare for the Easter Triduum may we appreciate in a most profound way the suffering of love that Christ willingly endured for our redemption. Then our Easter joy will be that much more complete.
May this Lent be especially blessed for you.