It’s both meaningful and providential that Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day this year. That’s because if there’s one thing that most of the world is totally mixed-up about, it’s the meaning of love. Love, contrary to popular belief, is not a synonym for sex. Nor is it a reward for being good. (At least, it shouldn’t be!) It’s also not an emotion, although when we truly love someone we might sometimes experience good feelings.
Real love is an act of will. Real love is a decision. It’s a decision to desire and to seek the good for another human being. Parents, for example, are said to love their children when they seek what’s truly good for them. They love their children when they selflessly make the sacrifices that help them to grow spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically.
Real love, therefore, is not selfish; it’s selfless. If you truly love someone you will put that person before yourself and their needs before your own. Real love is also patient. If you truly love other people you’ll make every effort to be patient with them when they don’t fully meet your expectations (which will probably be quite often!). Real love is also merciful and forgiving. If you truly love others, you’ll be willing to forgive them when they disappoint you or offend you in some way — as they certainly will, at least from time to time, simply because they’re not perfect. And finally, real love is self-sacrificial. Real love is about giving yourself, in care and in service, to others. As Jesus told us, “Greater love than this nobody has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”
St. Valentine was a man who demonstrated this kind of love in his own life. He lived in Rome in the third century, and it was there that he gave the ultimate witness to his love for Jesus Christ and the Church through his martyrdom.
Which brings us to the season of Lent. Lent, at its core, is about love. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be about. Our disciplines and sacrifices during this holy season are supposed to help us grow in our love for God and one another. That’s their purpose. Their purpose is not to make us miserable and ornery.
This, incidentally, is why trying to get to confession during the season of Lent every year is so important! Confession either strengthens — or re-establishes — our bond of love with the Lord. Real love, as was said earlier, is forgiving. God, in his great love for us, wants to forgive us. As Pope Francis has often indicated, the Lord wants to forgive us even more than we want to be forgiven. He wants to forgive us for every sin we’ve ever committed. But we have to ask for that forgiveness. He will not force it on us. He respects our freedom too much to do that.
So next week, on Ash Wednesday, we should ask St. Valentine to intercede on our behalf. We should ask him to pray that we will have a good Lent, a fruitful Lent, a love-filled Lent: 40 days of growing in our love for God and others that will make us better men, better women, better disciples of Jesus Christ when Lent is over — and for the rest of our lives.