The greatest sign of love known to man isn’t a chocolate heart.
February 14 is Valentine’s Day. And Ash Wednesday. That means the day of chocolate indulgence gets trumped by the day of fasting.
But beyond the awkward externals, Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday weirdly fits. Love songs can help explain.
1: “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs,” sang Paul McCartney. “What’s wrong with that?”
Every other year, the real February 14 feast in the Church is neither Ash Wednesday nor St. Valentine’s Day. It’s the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
These are no ordinary saints — they are on a very short list of people who have a whole papal encyclical devoted just to them. Why? Because these two scholarly brothers refused to turn up their noses at the barbarian Slavs they were sent to convert.
Instead, “They desired to become similar in every aspect” to their flock, says St. John Paul. “In order to translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language, they had to make an effort to gain a good grasp of the interior world” of the Slavs.
It is easy to dismiss the world’s silly romantic excesses on Ash Valentine’s Day. But if we do, we wouldn’t be much like Cyril and Methodius. Valentine’s Day is silly, yes. What’s wrong with that?
2: “There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do,” sings Adele, “to make you feel my love.”
Valentine’s Day is a day when we give tokens of our love to our beloved so they will feel our love. It can’t take the place of the real love we live out in slow motion all year, but heaven help you if you forget Valentine’s Day if it’s important to your beloved.
In the same way, Ash Wednesday and our Lenten penances are tokens of love we give to God. Fasting and ashes won’t take the place of real love — but heaven help you if you forget a day that is important to your Beloved.
Fasting is our way of telling God there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to make him “feel” our love.
3: “I fell for you like a child,” sang Johnny Cash. “Oh, and the fire went wild.”
Ashes and candles mark Valentine’s Day this year. Which is perfect.
A romance — or a person — is called “hot” in our language for a reason. The burning passion of love has been a metaphor for false love for years — much heat that gives little light and leaves only ashes.
Let your Valentine ashes be a warning to you: Real love is a flickering candle that must be kept alive as it gives light to your life. A raging fire burning out of control leaves only a dark sorry smudge.
4: “I dare you to let me be your one and only,” sings Adele.
The priest says the same thing: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Ash Wednesday advice is good advice for lovers. And vice versa. Real love turns away from all others for the sake of the beloved. Treat God the way Adele wants her beloved to treat her, and you will have a happy life.
5: “I’m only me when I’m with you,” sings Taylor Swift.
“At last, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones,” sings Adam.
If you think about the other advice you hear on Ash Wednesday — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — it fits, too.
It’s a reference to Adam, who was made from the dust of the earth. But remember what happened next: Eve was made from one of his ribs.
The dust we return to is the dust God reached into. When he did that, he didn’t just make us. He made someone else especially for us.
6: “I Would Die 4 U,” sang Prince.
It’s an ancient promise: As old as romantic love itself.
“Love is stronger than death” says the Song of Songs. Love is stronger because we would die for the one we love and because in the normal course of events, love multiplies us.
But on Ash Wednesday we remember our death at the beginning of the long march to the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate “Love is stronger than death” statement.
Romantic love ultimately has to give way to this greater love. What we look for in our beloved — a constant companion and an abiding home — can only be found, not on Ash Wednesday or Valentine’s Day, but at Easter.
7: “Let’s stay together,” sang Al Green, “Loving you whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.”
And, of course, Ash Wednesday teaches that real love entails sacrifice.
Love has to be purified by the cross. That means the greatest sign of love known to man isn’t a chocolate heart — but an ashen cross.