There is something a bit awkward about Valentine's Day falling the day after Ash Wednesday this year. The day defined by chocolate, wine, flowers and basic indulgence following on the heels of the day when many Christians commit to fasting from such very indulgences presents a dilemma for those serious about observing the rhythms of the church year. The question arises: How can one participate in the Lenten practices of sacrifice on a day dedicated to celebrating the joys of love?
I wonder though if the problem is not so much this year's particular calendar, but the individualistic ways we have come to view both Lent and love.
Lent traditionally is a season of penance and sacrifice intended to prepare the Christian community for the period of remembering the events of Holy Week, but in contemporary times those sacrifices are often only of the personal kind. We give up pleasures (chocolate) or habits (Facebook or TV) for the sake of drawing ourselves closer to God. But while pietism that relies solely on personal sacrifices that affect us and us alone can serve to draw us emotionally closer to God it can also make it easier for us to forget that our faith is not something that concerns just us.
If we believe in the Christian teachings that we exist as members of the body of Christ then the disciplines we engage in should always work towards the good of that body. The Gospels speak of practices like uplifting the lowly, welcoming the outcast, and making God's house a place of prayer for all peoples as part of what it means to work for the good of that body. While being personally closer to God might serve the good of the body in some ways, it is rare that Lenten practices are conceived in such a way. Giving up chocolate might help my diet and make it difficult to celebrate Valentine's Day this year, but it has very little to do with working for the good of others.
In fact, according to the legends, Saint Valentine provides a better example of living into those gospel ways than our modern observances of Lent. The stories hold that Valentine was a Roman priest who lived during the reign of Claudius Gothicus. The official imperial policy of the day was that it was illegal for Christians to be married or receive aid of any kind, but Valentine chose to defy the laws of the land and marry couples anyway. For this he was arrested and martyred on Feb. 14.
To me, Valentine's actions embody what it means to live as a member of a body. He chose to love and serve others despite the imperial voices dictating that he withhold aid. As a priest, he could easily have devoted himself in such a time of persecution to personal devotions that would have drawn him closer to God (and saved his own neck), but instead he opted to help those in need and include those the powers-that-be demanded be excluded. He became a martyr for the sake of love.
I wonder how different the church could be if during the season of Lent this year, we Christians chose not to see Valentine's Day as an awkward dilemma to deal with but as a guide for our practices. What if we too chose to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of love?
Instead of giving up chocolate or Facebook for Lent, we could work to aid those our culture dictates we exclude. We could provide the blessing of marriage to those our culture forbids to let marry. We could provide aid to those our culture says are unwelcome sojourners in our midst. We could work to ensure that our churches truly are a welcoming house of prayer for all peoples. It may be uncomfortable and perhaps even difficult to work for the good of those our culture would rather us despise or exclude (although I doubt it will get us beheaded), but perhaps that's what being a martyr for the sake of love means these days.
It is a lot easier to focus on our personal spiritual development than it is to work for the good of others. Perhaps not eating chocolate for a few weeks might help us pray more, but the way of Christ implies that the discipline of sacrifice should extend beyond just ourselves to help create the sort of world where the lowly are uplifted and the outcast welcomed. Having Valentine's Day at the very start of Lent this year can be about more than just us feeling guilty about indulging during Lent, it can remind us that sacrificing ourselves for the sake of love is the greatest sacrifice of all.