Some have lamented the fact that St Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday share the same space this year. Simultaneously receiving chocolates and giving them up for Lent is doing a few folk’s heads in!
Can there be anything in common with a feast celebrating romantic love and the commencement of a fast that confronts us with the sombre reality of costly sacrifice?
The original story of St Valentine combines both. He is a third-century bishop who secretly performed Christian marriage rites forbidden to Roman soldiers. He was jailed and sentenced to execution. In the meantime, he healed the eyesight of the jailer’s daughter and wrote her a note signed “your Valentine” on the day of his execution. There was nothing romantic in any of this, but it provided visible expression of the outworking of God’s love in a man the Church eventually recognised in the tradition of her highest possible manner – canonisation.
The early church called the process of being open to transformation in such a way that reflected the love of God “theosis”. This is the purpose of Lent – to focus on disciplines that take us on the journey of theosis. It is an outer as much as an inner journey, for God’s love will always have us seeking out ways to engage the other with grace. St Valentin is only one of many exemplars, but he is a worthy figure that steps forward as devout pilgrims are “anointed” with ash today in preparation for the journey to Good Friday and beyond.
Today’s text from Joel offers the same synchronicity.