February 16, 2018

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Valentine’s Day falling on Ash Wednesday offered a chance to deepen our view on love

Sean GallagherCatholics and other Christians around the world began the season of Lent last Wednesday.

Lent, of course, is a 40-day period of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter. It is marked by a spirit of penance when believers give special emphasis to the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But this year was curious because the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday occurred on Feb. 14, which is also St. Valentine’s Day. Penance seems far from most minds on that day which often sees couples go out to a nice dinner and exchange chocolates.

This is the first time that Ash Wednesday has fallen on St. Valentine’s Day since 1945. Ash Wednesday is observed on varying days from one year to the next because its date is determined by the date for Easter, which also varies from year to year.

There’s something fitting, though, about the conjunction of these two feasts.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romantic love in our culture. And that kind of love is a good and beautiful thing to rejoice in. I’ve had the joy of experiencing it and sharing it with my wife, Cindy, whom I married almost 17 years ago.

But as we, and many other long‑married couples have learned in our and their lives together, love must deepen and broaden out far beyond romance for the relationship of spouses to become what God intended it to be.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote some 800 years ago that love, at its most fundamental level, is to will the good of one who is loved. Love, in his view, is primarily an act of the will. Emotions of the heart, while an aspect of love, are secondary.

Lent is a time when, with the help of God’s grace, we are given the opportunity to express our love for Christ by showing with the choices of our wills that he is our greatest good.

We might take time we usually use to watch TV or surf the Internet and give it to prayer instead. We might fast from a favorite food to focus our hearts more on heaven than on the things of this world. We might give of ourselves to help those in need and, in the process, will the good of Christ by willing the good of his least brothers and sisters (Mt 25:31-46).

While we cannot truly contribute to the good of Christ since he is perfect in all things, he is pleased by our grace-inspired efforts to express our love for him in these and so many other ways.

This work we do during Lent to put Christ first in our lives often results in us putting other people’s lives ahead of ourselves. So many of our Lenten practices are ways for us, with the help of God, to take our focus off of ourselves and onto God and the good of those around us. And this is what St. Thomas Aquinas said love is all about—willing the good of others.

Valentine’s Day may highlight one aspect of love, one that is a true and good part of our humanity. But its occurrence this year on Ash Wednesday was an opportunity for us to appreciate and embrace more deeply the true meaning of love.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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