Living as a persecuted Christian in the third century, St. Valentine was beheaded. After praying for his jailer's daughter, and after she was healed of her blindness, he wrote her a note signed, "Your Valentine," on the day of his execution. He did not buy her chocolates, roses, or land a reservation at Ruth's Chris steakhouse. In fact, Valentine's love was not even romantic in nature... he lead her to Jesus, who healed her. He introduced her to love... the love that he was martyred for.
On Ash Wednesday, followers of Jesus spread last years Palm Sunday Branches, charred to ashes, in the shape of the cross on parishioner's foreheads. As the ashes are applied, a charge is given: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." This invitation to die to ourselves is the core message of Jesus' preaching: "repent, the kingdom of God is at hand!"
Many believers in Jesus participate in an intentional time of self-denial for 40 days before Easter. During this season called Lent, we are invited to exchange earthly desires and rhythms for a re-alignment in our relationship with the Lord. The season is a reflection of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness, where he secured his identity with the Father in spite of worldly temptations from Satan.
It has been 70 years since Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day have shared the same calendar square. The eclipse, for some, creates a problematic dichotomy between indulgence with a lover and temperance through faith. However, ashes, romance and self-denial share a foundation of love. Not the shallow, commercialized love that also employs elves at Christmas and bunnies at Easter, but the kind of weighty love that Jesus embodies.
The world did not understand this love then, when Jesus walked the earth, and I don't think we get it now. Too much repentance! Too much humility required... too much sacrifice and long-suffering. The suggestion that we are not already good "lovers" is heretical in our easy "you-be-you" culture. Culture screams that love is how we feel... and if this is true, who can challenge how I feel? No one.
However, for Christians, love is not a feeling, it is a person. As we become more loving, we actually become more like the person who is love. God is love. The gospel is the ultimate love story... complete commitment of the lover to the beloved. There is nothing partial about it. Jesus' love is all-in to the point of death.
When Jesus asks us to repent, he is telling us to turn around, and face the One who is love. To stop walking in a way that is out of step with love. The things in us that are not love are called sin, and, counterintuitively, as we move toward Jesus we find that we also become more like ourselves... because the one who is love made us just like him. A lover. A lover, whose ultimate expression is not a feeling, but flesh, bones, soul and spirit.
As Christians then, our commitment to Lent, love and ashes looks a little funny to the world in its self-denying nature. The 40 days ends at Easter where we proclaim that this love has conquered all things, even Death. While many people may consider the great hope of this Easter story, (which lands early this year on April first...) foolish, we bear witness to a God who has loved us deeply, so that we may be like him and love others.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.1 John 3:16