It’s St Valentine’s day next week. This year, it coincides with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and a traditional day for penance and fasting. Oh dear! What to do?!
Some think this is a pity; normally we focus on romance and joy for the lover’s feast and it’s hard to do that on Ash Wednesday. How can we justify a romantic dinner with champagne and indulgence when we really should be fasting from treats and avoiding rich foods?
However, like a blue moon, perhaps we should see this rare event – last experienced 72 years ago – as a chance to look beyond the dinners and Hallmark cards to the deeper insights about what we are celebrating.
According to some sources, St Valentine was a bishop under the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, well before Constantine ended the persecution of Christians. Knowing that single men make more willing soldiers, the Emperor, outlawed weddings hoping that it would alleviate the recruiting deficits of his army.
Valentine, in defiance of the Emperor, performed weddings in secret for love-struck couples. He was eventually discovered and was arrested, and no doubt many of the defiantly married couples were also.
During his imprisonment, he healed the sight of the young daughter of one his jailors. Legend has it that he penned a farewell note to the girl before his death, signing it “from your Valentine”.
He was executed in 269 AD on February 14: a Christian revolutionary defying an unjust law; a martyr for marriage.
In his day and in ours, standing for marriage comes with a cost. This is true not only in the public square but also within the marriage relationship itself.
Sometimes, marriage is just darn hard! Misunderstanding, busyness, human weakness and tragedy can put our relationship under stress (speaking hypothetically of course!). In a culture that tells us to just throw it away when a relationship becomes too demanding, the Catholic commitment to permanency in marriage is truly counter-cultural.
Indeed, every long-time married couple is a revolutionary like St Valentine; a living witness to a beautiful truth. We don’t get to be long-time married without standing, again and again, against the cultural pressure to be unfaithful, to pursue our own self-interests and gratify our every desire.
True love costs. St Mother Teresa of Kolkata used to urge her listeners: “Love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.”
For love in our marriages to flourish, we must daily be willing to forgive each other for our imperfections; we must daily recommit to a costly love that sets our own interests aside and focusses on serving the other.
Marriage is not free. Never was, and never will be. Nothing of value ever is. Like a precious metal, it needs to be refined and purified to shine. Like a rare stone, it needs to be cut and polished to reveal its true potential.
The priceless jewel that is our marriage demands that we empty ourselves of self-interest in order to truly love and serve each other. Only then does our marriage become ‘sacramental’, the living image of Christ who gives his life in love for each of us.
Of course, as long-time married couples know, the effort is worth it. We are better persons for this. And our marriages – as imperfect as they are – are a source of deep satisfaction and our community benefits from the example of selfless love.
Just as the work of Mother Teresa touched many more people than she helped directly, so too our commitment to sacrificial love leaves its mark in ways we will never know.
As married couples, we know that “be my Valentine” means so much more than chocolates and roses.
A Message for Married Couples on St Valentine’s Day
God does not call us to mediocrity. God calls us to be a radical witness; to bring alive within our marriage the passionate love and extravagant mercy he has for every human person. God calls us to live this reality within our own marriage and, through our lived example, to proclaim it to our families and to the world.
But marriage can be a challenge sometimes! We are not always easy to love, especially when hurts and disappointments accumulate.
Yet God is endlessly patient and merciful! Even when we fail, even when we settle for less, even when we doubt … God’s mercy calls us back.
This year, St Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday. Why not make Lent a time to bring mercy more deeply into your marriage with this daily prayer?
You call us to radical holiness;
to witness to your passionate love and extravagant mercy.
Forgive us for the times we have failed to love
and help us to more readily forgive each other.
Inspire us with the ambition to grow ever closer
to the fulfilment of our vocation. Amen.