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Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, and the mystery of God’s love

Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, and the mystery of God’s love

I’ve been intentionally celibate since entering the seminary more than a quarter century ago, so it has been quite a while since I’ve given much thought to Valentine’s Day.  But even priests are paying attention to it this year, given the very rare coincidence – it hasn’t happened for sixty years, and only occurs three or four times a century – that Valentine’s Day falls on the same date as Ash Wednesday.  

Although it seems like the quintessential “Hallmark Holiday”, the association of (St) Valentine’s Day with romantic love (what the Greek philosophers called eros) dates to the 14th century and the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates came much later, in the mid-nineteenth century; they won’t be able to stand up this year to the rules for fasting and abstinence that mark the first day of Lent.  But the spirit and traditions of Ash Wednesday can actually enrich our understanding of eros, and of its proper place in the life of the disciple. 

At the heart of Ash Wednesday is a most tactile experience: the imposition of blessed ashes on the heads of each of the faithful.  The Lenten call to a spiritual conversion – Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel – begins with the Church making contact with the body, because we believe that “the human body shares in the dignity of ‘the image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit” (Catechism 364).  We recall, too, the impact that the Original Sin, and our personal history of sin, have on the body: “the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered” (Catechsim, 400), and the flesh is subject to suffering and even death – Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return. 

Ash Wednesday thus challenges the lie commonly held today (which is also one of the most ancient heresies), that the soul of a human being is the “real self” and the body is merely a shell that is destined to be shed once we die, and which can be used, manipulated and even reshaped at will in order to maximize personal pleasure.  It calls us to be realistic in our understanding of the body and its desires, recognizing that emotions and attractions are to be considered in the context of the effects of Original Sin, rather than taken at face value and always leading to our good.   

In a Lenten custom practiced especially in English-speaking countries, the ashes are imposed on the forehead in the sign of the Cross – the same sign that the priest or deacon makes on the forehead of a person about to be baptized.  Ash Wednesday is thus a call to conversion – to turn away from sin – and also an invitation to return to the moment of baptismal commitment, which we will in fact formalize at the Easter liturgy, when as one congregation we renew our promises to reject sin and Satan, to believe in the Triune God, and to live as the Body of Christ in his Church, striving for eternal life.  It is a reminder that the saving work of Christ, in his Passion, death and Resurrection, has restored in us the Image of God that is the foundation of our identity and dignity. 

Appreciating our origin and our identity as creatures and, by grace, as sons and daughters of God, is the necessary starting point for a proper appreciation of eros.  “Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (Catechism2337, emphasis added).  Chastity is not repression or rejection of feelings and desires; to be chaste is not to be asexual or apathetic.  Rather, the virtue of chastity allows a person to consider sexual desire, eros, in relation to his or her identity, vocation and commitments.  The world says, “If you feel it, do it: with whomever you like, whenever you want, as often as you please.”  Chastity says, “Yes, I feel it, and I have the freedom to decide whether or not to act on it.  I’ll keep in mind that sin and woundedness mean that my feelings are not always trustworthy, but that I can trust that the plan of God for sexual intimacy will always lead to my true happiness and fulfillment.”    

Applying this plan of God to the experience of eros leads to different conclusions, of course, for people in different states of life.  For married people, eros properly forms a foundation for the lifelong, exclusive relationship in which “the two become one flesh” and cooperate with God in the creation of new life.  Chastity calls them to sexual intimacy which is characterized by permanence, fidelity, complementarity and openness to procreation.  Unmarried people are called to a different way of living with eros: they can pursue a romantic relationship only with a person who could possibly be a future spouse, and they must refrain from sexual intimacy unless and until they are married.   

Most unmarried people are looking for the person with whom Divine Providence is leading them to form a family.  They are free to send their valentines to someone who can be a spouse: someone with whom, because of the differences between the sexes, they can form the special kind of life-giving unity called marriage.   Ordained clergy and consecrated men and women have already made a commitment to remain unmarried for the sake of the Kingdom; they aren’t giving chocolate hearts to anyone, so that they can give an undivided heart to God in their vocations.  But what about single people for whom their experience of eros is not directed towards a potential spouse, because it is an experience of attraction for people of the same sex?  Does the Church really condemn them for their eros, marginalizing and isolating them, with no hope for meaningful connections? 

We have to admit that God’s plan for sexuality calls our brothers and sisters not to pursue sexually intimate connections with people of the same sex; as the Catechism says, “under no circumstances can” these relationships “be approved” (no. 2357).  But this is not the same as consigning a person to a life without any love at all.  Valentine’s Day is a reminder that eros is a particular type of love, meant for a particular type of relationship: after elementary school we don’t send valentines to just anyone, much less everyone.  Eros is an important love, but not the only love, and part of the responsibility of the Church today is to draw attention to the importance of affection, charity and friendship, which are not consolation prizes or second-best loves, but real connections and the foundation for authentic relationships. 

Same sex attracted people are called to sacrifice the possibility of a relationship based on eros in order to purify their hearts and intentions, thus making authentic friendships possible.  This can be a difficult proposition for many people, of course, particularly the young.  In my ministry I am encountering more and more young people, members of the “JP2 Generation”, who are searching for what one friend called “the chaste gay boyfriend” or girlfriend.  That is, they have read the Theology of the Body, and they know the “rules” about sexual intimacy, so they are looking for someone equally faith-filled and well-formed with whom they can share an intense, exclusive romantic relationship, as well as a commitment to avoid physical intimacy.  Honest pastoral care has to dissuade them from this effort: eros wants definitive union with the beloved, a total gift given and received, and as long as human beings are a unity of body and soul, eros will always tend toward physical union as well as spiritual.  “External chastity” (not “doing it”) is impossible without the kind of “internal chastity” that distinguishes eros from friendship, and allows a person to choose appropriately.  To pursue a “chaste romance” with a same sex partner is to work at cross-purposes with what one claims to be seeking. 

So, eros is sacrificed for the sake of friendship – something easy to say but seemingly very difficult to do.  Yet this notion of sacrificing something desired for the sake of something greater is at the very heart of the Christian life, and certainly at the foundation of our Lenten observance.  The fasting and abstinence of Ash Wednesday is meant to discipline the body, but these practices are not ends in themselves.  Instead, by giving up things that would be pleasing to the body, a person allows his or her soul to be more responsive to God’s call, and become freed from enslavement to worldly desires.  We give alms, not to feel morally superior to others, but so that we have greater motivation for depending on God and on his providential care.  We spend less time in front of the television and other “screens” in order to make more time for prayer and reflection.  None of our Lenten penances are done for their own sake; they all are meant to lead us to a deeper relationship with God, the source of every true consolation and the provider of all of our needs. 

Even with the best motivation and the clearest explanations, many of our brothers and sisters feel they’ve been left completely alone to carry a uniquely heavy cross with no one to help and no relief in sight.  This is where the most obvious, but most easily overlooked, aspect of Ash Wednesday comes into play: the fact that, as Christians and fellow disciples, we’re all in this together.  Private vows are only as strong as the person making them; private penances are easily left behind when there’s nobody to hold one accountable.  But when we fast and abstain for Lent, we do it together – as the first reading says, when we “proclaim a fast,” we likewise “call an assembly, gather the people [and] notify the congregation” (Joel 2:15-16).  Our common commitment gives witness to the world, and it likewise strengthens and encourages each individual member to sacrifice and pray in union with the whole Body of Christ. 

“All the baptized are called to chastity,” the Catechism reminds us.  “All Christ’s faithful are called to lead a chaste life in keeping with their particular states of life” (no. 2348).  As each member of the faithful lives out chastity in his or her circumstances, we also each bear witness to the lessons we have learned.  Married people testify that sexual complementarity and the possibility of procreation draw them out of themselves and towards each other.  Consecrated and ordained people proclaim that a life without a sexual relationship is by no means a life without love.  Single people seeking a spouse in chastity can speak of the power of grace to provide both self-control and a deep, patient trust in God’s plan.  And our brothers and sisters who live with same sex attractions, learning from all of these experiences, share their own journey towards heroic dependence on God and trust that He is the source of real consolation and authentic relationships, both divine and human. 

Eros, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Four Loves, “is necessarily between two and two only.” It is the love of Valentine’s Day, of romantic suppers and intimate conversations.  “But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best.” (p. 61).  The love of Ash Wednesday is this love of friendship – with Christ, first of all, and, through Christ, with one another. Although many dinner dates will have to be rescheduled this year, Ash Wednesday doesn’t threaten Valentine’s Day.  On the contrary, it provides the necessary context for understanding what it is we’re actually celebrating each February 14th, and how each of us must choose to live in loving relationships, following God’s plan for our happiness and fulfillment. 

Fr. Philip Bochanski, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, assumed the role of executive director of Courage International in January, 2017, following his tenure as associate director of the apostolate. Previously, Fr. Bochanski has served as chaplain of Philadelphia’s Courage chapter. 

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