Speaking of Religion: We are Dust; We are Timeless
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the 40 day Lenten Liturgical Season, a time set aside and devoted to personal penance through a tradition of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
In contrast to the serious purpose of Lent, Valentine's Day celebrates the delightful feelings of romantic love. It is devoted to the celebration of a joyful affection for one who has touched our heartstrings. "Will you be my Valentine?"
Can Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine's Day be reconciled? Do they have anything in common? Yes, without too much of a stretch of the imagination it is quite possible to see a relationship, a serious relationship, between the two. We remember that we are dust yet made for eternal love. Romantic Love is feeling based on affection. But love is more than that, much more. Its truth found through a martyr's death.
The Greco-Christian word Agape is identified as the self-sacrificing love God has for all humanity. We in turn are called to live within that same love for each other. Both romantic love and agapic love seek reciprocation through a fulfillment of the heart's desire.
Lent's origin is contained within the very meaning of the word. Lent means "a lengthening of days." It coincides with the stirrings of spring when the day's light lengthens in hours, dispelling the early darkness of both morning and evening.
In this holy season Christians devote themselves to the glorious yet arduous work of expanding our heart's capacity for a greater depth of relationship with our beloved God. We do so through intense prayer with our Beloved; through a timely, periodic fasting from various fascinations with our material world, such as food or drink or constant use of digital communication, which sometimes have a way of overshadowing our Beloved; through almsgiving to those who, often forgotten or hurt, need our attention, for they too embody our Beloved within them. It is a matter not only of giving material assistance but also of giving mercy and forgiveness. It is all about love.
On Saint Valentine's Day, so medieval legend says, spring was in the air and birds began to pair. Young men and women would formally choose each other then or at least send missives and greetings of affection. Thus the Lenten lengthening of days of spring does have a correlation with St. Valentine's Day, but more than that, it calls us through and beyond romantic love to a love beyond all telling, a love through which a person willingly lays down his or her very life for the sake of the beloved.
The historical Valentine was a priest of Rome in the late 3rd century when Claudius II, Emperor of Rome, introduced a persecution against Christians. Valentine was apprehended by the Roman forces and commanded to renounce his faith. He refused and was then beaten with clubs and finally beheaded on Feb. 14th.
Although his gruesome death seems to stand in contrast to springtime longings for pairings, Valentine died for the sake of bringing his love to fulfillment. Greater love than this no one has. Romantic love, if true to the beloved, will give way to the love that gives everything for the beloved including one's very own life. It is not simply a matter of candies and flowers; it is a matter of what one will die for.
Lenten penances are meant to strengthen love for our Beloved through the exercise of sacrifices which will lead us to the supreme sacrifice that, ironically and paradoxically, brings us life's fullness through a conquering of sin and death.
The Resurrection of Jesus is the full day's light of Easter. We are invited to live in that light. He is the light of the world. We willingly undertake a penitential lengthening of days for the sake of an expanded heart, one capable of receiving the greatest gift of love, our Beloved, the light of our lives.
The Rev. Hugh Cleary, C.S.C. is parochial vicar at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales and St. John the Baptist Church in Bennington and North Bennington.
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