Ashes or valentines? That seems to be the dilemma as Catholics celebrate the start of the Lenten season on Feb. 14. But just how much of a dilemma is it? After all, we celebrate “Saint” Valentine’s Day.
Part of the confusion lies in the commercialization of Valentine’s Day. Immediately after the new year, I began seeing red. Not in anger, but in celebration of the holiday. Large stuffed animals, boxes of chocolates, candy hearts, rows upon rows of cards. And of course, there’s a demand.
In high school, I remember being pretty concerned about whether I would receive a Valentine’s bear or chocolates. We buy into the idea of love and romance on Feb. 14, and we set expectations for “gifts” to demonstrate that love.
The other confusion lies in the origins of St. Valentine. There remains much confusion over the identity of Valentine. Who was he? Why was he martyred?
According to the History Channel, enough confusion exists that the Catholic Church discontinued liturgical veneration of St. Valentine in 1969, though he is still recognized, officially, as a saint.
Perhaps one of the stories surrounding St. Valentine links most closely with our reverence for the celebration of love on Feb. 14. During the reign of emperor Claudius II, there was an edict prohibiting marriage.
The edict was based on the belief that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because the unmarried would have no obligation to a wife or family should they die. Moreover, polygamy was a common practice.
Despite the edict, Valentine encouraged marriage within the church as a sacred act of commitment between one man and one woman. Secretly, he would perform the sacrament. Eventually, however, Valentine was discovered, imprisoned, tortured, and finally beheaded.
What, then, do we celebrate on Valentine’s Day? In honor of the saint, we celebrate the sanctity of marriage: a martyr who refused to renounce his faith or deny his faithful a sacrament.
In the context of marriage, his story reminds us of the seriousness of the marriage vow. Marriage isn’t the kitschy, fairy-tale, commercialized love story that we see depicted in the media. There is pain and suffering and compromise.
Commitments are hard. And as a martyr, St. Valentine reminds us to stand up for our beliefs – even to the point of death.
So, valentines or ashes? Is there really a choice?
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” As we receive our ashen crosses, we are told to remember our mortality. We are given the opportunity to reflect and make sure that we are ready for our day of judgment. In celebrating the martyrdom of St. Valentine, we are provided a story of someone who remained firm in his belief, despite the customs and laws of emperor Claudius II. Armed with the power of the Holy Spirit, Valentine willingly laid down his life for the faith. His story is more than hearts and roses: his is also a story of mortality.
Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at email@example.com.