Nothing says Happy Valentine’s Day quite like the words “Dust you are and to dust you shall return,” as an ashen cross is smeared on your forehead. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition, the secular society’s dedication February 14th to the idea of love, alongside the church’s celebration of Ash Wednesday and our focus on where real love comes from and our need for it.
From “All you need is love” to being told to “Love the one you’re with,” to “Freelove,” to “Love, is Love, is Love,” our world has a thoroughly permissive and arguably misguided view of love. From boyfriends and girlfriends, to roommates, or even heterosexual monogamous “partners,” or “special friends” mentioned in obituaries, a worldly unchristian view of love permeates our landscape.
Again, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day being one and the same this year provide an interesting intersection. Who is Saint Valentine? The most popular perspective on St. Valentine is that he was a priest in Rome during the mid-200s AD under Emperor Claudius II. This was still a half century before Constantine would convert to Christianity and with him the Roman empire. The church Valentine lived in was therefore under regular threat, and martyrdoms were not uncommon for Christians who sought to stand up to a Godless, God-hating government.
But what was Valentine’s crime that got him beaten, stoned, and beheaded? He was willing to marry people! Emperor Claudius believed that soldiers without families fought better because they weren’t afraid of leaving behind a loved one, so he prohibited the marriage of young people. This was a non-issue from a relations standpoint because polygamy, polyamory, and prostitution were fairly commonplace. But for those who sought to get married, who actually wanted a bonded, official, God-ordained and God-blessed union, Valentine was the man to call.
The thing I find so crazy about Claudius’s edict about unmarried soldiers is that it runs completely counter to the nature of true manliness. 20th century Christian thinker and author G.K. Chesterton rightly stated, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” The true man is willing to fight and die for his wife, his family, for the love of country and way of life that he seeks to preserve. True love is a strong motivator. It is what God’s Word lays out as the thing that causes a man to leave father and mother and cleave to his wife becoming one flesh with her forsaking all others.
It is this true love that we are reminded of on Ash Wednesday with that ashen cross. While our mortal bodies will indeed decay to dust, we have already been reborn to new everlasting life in the waters of Holy Baptism because Christ sought to forsake His Father’s throne and be forsaken on the cross. He chose to show true love in His own words by laying down his life for His friends even as Paul reiterates that a good man dares even to die. He looked on us not in hatred and anger over our sin, but rather being rich in mercy. He became sin for us, making us righteous, being the firstborn amongst many brothers. That we might know this true love of our God in the fullness of our sins being forgiven, our old lives done away with, our new lives in Christ being empowered by His love, which comes to us and is lived out in us by the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to die to self and love our God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength, and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
Happy Valentine’s/Ash WednesDay,