A Valentine’s Day Tradition

What better way to say, “I love you,” than passing your beloved some sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, and glycerin wrapped in a chalkly Necco wafer heart? Maybe some of you remember your fifth grade crush surreptitiously sneaking a bag of assorted candy hearts ( “Be Mine,” “You’re Sweet,” or “For Ever” ) along with a Peanuts-themed Valentine’s Day card into your desk.

As a kid, Valentine’s Day was stressful for me because I had to make a card for everyone in my class, even for those kids I particularly didn’t like. Fortunately, I married a woman whose language of love prefers working sprinkler heads, organized cupboards, and updated bookkeeping to Hallmark cards, roses, and chocolate fondue. Although, she does enjoy the latter! 

So, why is February 14th so special? 

The Legend of St. Valentine

February 14th is a feast day in the Roman Catholic church for a St. Valentine who was martyred in the 3rd century. He is considered the patron saint of lovers, but also of epileptics and beekeepers. 

Should that surprise us? Indeed, love can seize, sting, and sweeten us. 

Jest aside, legend has it that St. Valentine, defying a Roman law which forbade soldiers to marry, openly officiated the weddings of a number of conscripted men. He was tried and convicted for standing up to the imperial decree and sentenced to death. One addendum to the legend inserts a saccharine sweet detail about a note Valentine left on the morning of his execution for the jailer’s daughter, whom he had healed from blindness. It was signed, “Your Valentine.” 

A Developing Tradition

In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem entitled The Parliament of Fowls. It depicts the romantic pairing of birds on St. Valentine’s Day. Chaucer’s poem may reflect the development of customs and traditions  forming around his February 14th Feast Day. 

Whatever grain of truth is found in the Valentine’s Day origin story and its traditions, there is little doubt that it has become a highly marketed and commercialized holiday celebrating romantic love in numerous countries around the globe. 

In 2024, February 14th, with its emphasis on romantic love, shares calendar space with Ash Wednesday and its emphasis on a related, but radically more complete kind of love.

Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday

I can see the clergy couple now, vowing their love for one another, sooty crosses on their foreheads, the reminder of both their moral and mortal fragility echoing through their hearts, sharing a glass of Cabernet and a slice of ganache topped cheesecake over candlelight. This seems like a dissonant picture, but in reality, it is not. 

Let me explain. 

A close-up image of candy hearts.

Ash Wednesday initiates a season of remembrance of God’s immense love for us that inevitably marches towards the cross. Although we spurn his loving advances, he unrelentingly pursues us. He descends from glory into shame, from verdant days to blighted nights. Ridicule, rejection, betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and sorrow are his. For his burning desire is to rekindle our relationship with him. 

Like Hosea, who pursues his beloved Gomer to redeem her from her infidelity, God pursues us down the morally and mortally destructive paths on which we’ve trodden. He exchanges his life for ours. 

Psalm 107 depicts our wandering from God’s love, cornered by foes in desert wastelands, imprisoned by our rebellion, entangled in sin, and adrift at sea in our pride. Four times a refrain for rescue rings out, “[We] cried out to the Lord in our trouble, and he delivered [us] from [our] distress.” Why? “…for he is good; his love endures forever” (v. 1).*

Ash Wednesday reminds us that God is the lover of our souls. Sadly, we are slow to return that love. We do not recognize ourselves as lovable. 

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton says, “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is loveable.” 

Christ has first loved us! 

Cupid’s Arrow, Romantic Love, and the Beginning of Lent

The uncontrollable desire of romantic love often represented by the mythology of cupid’s arrow is in the end, a fickle and fleeting kind of love. Eros satisfies momentarily, but agape endures. 

On this Valentine’s Day, both we who impose the ashes and receive its imposition are bound by this more enduring love. We are bound by a love that clothes our nakedness and beautifies our ugliness. It is a love where justice and mercy meet.

I will close with this quote by the late Frederick Buechner, 

Romantic love is blind to everything except what is lovable and lovely. But Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy. The worst sentence love can pass is that we behold the suffering which love has endured for our sake and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one. (from Beyond Words, 2004)

A blessed Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday to you all!

Image of young man making a heart with his hands that encloses a brightly lit cross in the background.

* Biblical quotes taken from ESV.

Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.

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