What a “happy accident” that this year’s Ash Wednesday falls on February 14, St Valentine’s Day. Beginning Lent with a focus on love is a compellingly right way to walk into Lent.
Obviously I’m not talking about romantic love, at least the way Valentine’s Day is celebrated in our world. Romantic love is a great gift, when accompanied by commitment to guard and nurture the beauty and holiness of God-given covenantal marriage. Affection and love in families and between friends is also a good and godly gift. I still remember the little paper Valentines my mother gave us kids, or that we exchanged in elementary school. No harm, no foul, good fun.
But that’s not the call to love that Lent offers. There is a “first love” that Lent is about.
The church in Ephesus did much that was right. Nevertheless, Jesus was deeply concerned for its welfare. “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, therefore, from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
Behind that correction stands the overflowing heart of God. The origin of human creation is delight and love from the eternal Trinity toward his image-bearer: Genesis 1:26-31. The impulse of redemption is the awesome reality of God’s holy determination to heal our adulterous loves and to make the broken whole again. The message throughout the sad history of Israel is that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Above all, there is “the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.”
No wonder, then the call to the beloved from the Lover is to love him in response. “The first and greatest commandment is this, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Love for the Lord necessarily includes the right orderings of heart, mind, and will. Love is indeed the sum of all commands, the end of all law: Matthew 22:36-40, Galatians 5:14.
Lent, then, is decidedly a time to revisit the source and origin of all true and right love. It is a time to deeply consider “our first love.” To that end, we practice spiritual disciplines of renewed devotion, fastings (decluttering, refocusing, or going hungry to nurture a greater hunger), and almsgiving, all for love’s sake.
As we consider ways to nurture and renew our first love during Lent, St Valentine may in fact be a great model and example. Reliable knowledge about this saint is hard to find. Multiple people from the 3rd and 4th centuries have been dubbed “St Valentine.” Two are prominently mentioned. One was a priest near Rome, martyred for his faith in 269 AD. The other was a bishop from modern-day Umbria, also martyred for his faith (273 AD). Some speculate that this was actually one and the same person, though there are two graves, and two reliquaries, associated with two different people. Then there is a third person named St Valentine martyred in North Africa in the 3rd century, and another St Valentine from Genoa, and another from Slovakia – the list goes on.
Add to that misty history, the practices of honoring this saint, and why we honor a St Valentine at all, and which saint is being honored, and on what day, and in what way, differ wildly between the West and the East and in various folk legends and practices throughout Europe. The first notice of associating St Valentine with romantic love comes from a 14th century poem by Geoffrey Chaucer celebrating the engagement of English King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Literary critics believe that Chaucer was referring to customs associated with a Genovese St Valentine’s day celebrated on May 3.
Clearly, confusion around who, what, why, and when we would remember St Valentine is significant. So why suggest at all that we remember this composite saint as a guide to Lent?
Underneath all the stories about a St Valentine, and his various supposed acts connected to romantic love (one martyred St Valentine is said to have officiated at clandestine weddings for Christian Roman soldiers), there is one constant current. Every one of these Christians lost their lives for their faith. Over the course of their lives, they nurtured a first love, and they paid the ultimate price rather than betray that love.
According to ultimately trustworthy Wikipedia (smile), “Popular modern sources claim links to unspecified Greco-Roman February holidays alleged to be devoted to fertility and love to St. Valentine's Day, but prior to Chaucer in the 14th century, there were no links between the Saints named Valentinus and romantic love. Earlier links as described above were focused on sacrifice rather than romantic love.”
Love for the Lord begins as a spontaneous response to his unfathomable love, and our love for him always grows as a responsive love: “We love because he first loved us.” But while spontaneity is great, it does not fully sustain and grow love. Love for anyone can be nurtured, including love for the Lord. But nurturing love for the Lord requires letting go of other loves, and creating space in our souls that he can fill.
If our hearts are filled with lesser loves, how can we receive more of God’s love, and return it back to him? Consider the tragedy of Isaac. He ended life badly, making a mess of his family and failing, perhaps deliberately, his responsibility to pass the covenant blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. Why his bias for the older son whom God had already proclaimed would serve the younger? Genesis 27: 1-4 offers a clue. Isaac speaks to Esau and asks him to hunt game and “prepare for me delicious food, such as I love.” That phrase repeats in vv. 9 and 14. By v 25, he trades the covenantal blessing for a bowl of stew, given to the right son in spite of Isaac’s (willful?) departure from Yahweh’s prophetic will.
Love always grows on a path that requires some sort of sacrifice. Love led God to sacrifice for us. Our love relationship with him is rooted in his sacrifice, and it is returned and nurtured in our small sacrifices. Like the Ephesians, nurturing that love inevitably calls for repentance, remembering, and returning. What better time than Lent to sacrifice more time and money, or to choose less food or media distraction, in order to attend to and nurture our first, most important love?
Last Lent, I strongly commended the book, The Good of Giving Up, by Aaron Damiani, an ACNA rector in Chicago. If you did not read it last year, I underline my appeal: get this book, and read it!