This year, on February 14th, the celebration of a saint of popular interest and devotion and the beginning of Lent coincide. February 14th is the occasion (since 469 AD) for the commemoration of the martyr, Saint Valentine and it is also Ash Wednesday.
The Festal Day of Saint Valentine has not, since 1969, been part of the Universal Calendar of the Church (a calendar that assigns particular days in the course of year to honor the witness of the saints). This does not mean, as some continue to insist, that the Church has declared that Saint Valentine did not exist, but instead it means that the commemoration of the saint is not obligatory for the whole Church, but can happen locally on February 14th. In terms of his existence, Saint Valentine remains enrolled in the Roman Martyrology (which is an official list of saints recognized by the Church for liturgical celebrations and promoted for popular devotion). The historicity of the saint may be questioned, and the specific details of his life may be lost, but the Church continues to mark his martyrdom as worth honoring.
In terms of Saint Valentine himself, it has been hard to determine which saint bearing the name Valentine is the martyr being commemorated on February 14th (other than the martyr Valentine, there are at least a dozen saints with this name). There are three likely candidates for the February 14th designation- one a priest, the other a bishop, the other is a martyr, who the specific details of his life have disappeared into the past. The medieval text entitled the Legend Aurea (or the Golden Legend) has a priest by the name of Valentine killed by the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth in 269 AD. The story is that Valentine had the audacity to try to convince the emperor to accept the Christian faith and paid for this attempt with his life. It is a later text, the Nuremburg Chronicle, from 1493, that provides the detail that the priest Valentine was killed for marrying Christian couples when forbidden to do so by an imperial edict (ours is not the only era where marriage is a point of political tension, or where insistence on the Christian understanding of marriage is controversial).
It is the story of the priest Valentine, uniting Christian couples in holy matrimony that is likely where the association of the festival day with romantic gestures originates. Though some trace the practice of sending notes to one’s beloved on Saint Valentine’s Day with a miracle associated with the saint, his restoration of the sight of a blind girl, who is graced with a note from the saint on the day of his execution. Other scholars note the proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. Pope Gelasius established the commemoration of Saint Valentine in the year 469 AD and it is surmised that he was offering a Christian alternative to the sybaritic and sexualized displays of Lupercalia, romantic, marital love sanctified by the Church rather than unrestrained desires running amok in the streets. It seems that if this is actually the case, Pope Gelasius’ calculated decision actually worked, though Lupercalia has of late made its own kind of resurgence in the popular culture.
Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the Church’s Lenten observance. Lent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are to prepare themselves to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, mysteries which recount through acts of worship and prayerful devotion the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Preparation for Holy Week during Lent is threefold- prayer, fasting and almsgiving and to commemorate the beginning of these observances, the faithful receive ashes. In the United States the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross, creating one of the few moments in American public life when one’s identity as a Catholic is visibly displayed. In other parts of the world the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head (which is a far gentler reminder, I suppose, than having the ashes thrown in one’s face).
The coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday has resulted in several dioceses publicizing directives that are intended to remind the faithful that the observances of Ash Wednesday take priority over the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. This would not likely not be necessary should the date of Ash Wednesday coincide with most any other saint. Why? Few saints have the resonance in the popular culture that St. Valentine does. Customs that promote feasting and reverie continue to be celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th is a day reserved by the culture to celebrate romantic love and affection. These gestures are usually expressed through gifts or celebratory meals. The actual relationship of these customs to the martyr Valentine are lost for most, but he is one of the few remaining saints whose feast day still has some cultural traction. It is for this reason that there is the concern that the preference for the customs of St. Valentine’s Day might supplant the penitential character of Ash Wednesday. It is believed, that most would prefer a party and a box of chocolates to a penitential sermon and forehead full of ashes. We will know on St. Valentine’s Day, I mean Ash Wednesday, which preference prevails.
While the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day seems contrary to the practices of Ash Wednesday, the commemoration of the witness of the martyr Valentine remains in sync with the beginning of Lent. A martyr gives witness to his faith in Christ through an act of self-sacrifice, that is, an act of love. Love is not, contrary to the many of the pretenses of the popular celebration of Valentine’s day, reducible to romantic affection. Instead, love which is authentic and true, always demands a sacrifice, the gift of one’s very life for the sake of one’s beloved. This is what is supposed to happen in Christian marriage, indeed in every Christian vocation, and it is what the martyr displays par excellence in their willingness to suffer and die rather than to deny or repudiate their love for Christ.
The practices of Lent, though low key in their sacrifice, have the same intentionality, they are sacrifices intended as expressions of love for Christ and appreciations for his own self-sacrifice for our sake. A martyr does not need the practices of Lent to prepare them to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, for in their suffering and death they embody these mysteries in their flesh and blood. Making up in their own bodies for what lacked in the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul testified, the martyr reveals that Christ’s Body in the world, his mystical body in his Church, continues the revelation of the Incarnation itself. This witness is in sacrifice and in suffering.
This Incarnation of God in Christ does not merely manifest God’s glory in heaven, but such radiance is still on earth embodied in the glory of the Suffering Servant, who because there is no love in this world without sacrifice, revealed the extent of his love for his creation in the sacrifice of the cross. The martyr recapitulates this sacrifice and this love, revealing that God’s glory in his Church is manifested in the willingness of Christians to accept, that for the sake of their love for Christ, they are willing to become like him, suffering servants, for the sake of the world. It is in this way that the witness of the martyr Saint Valentine and the commemoration of Ash Wednesday will always coincide.