2024’s Best Valentine’s Day Gift Is a Cross Made of Ashes 

2024’s Best Valentine’s Day Gift Is a Cross Made of Ashes 

Photo Credit: Ahna Ziegler

Why this February 14th will be the most romantic one in almost 60 years

Stefanie Menezes, Lifestyle Editor 

This Valentine’s Day, Catholics are rejecting typical greetings in favour of another, more solemn address: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

For the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday coincides with the feast of St. Valentine, which religious and secular communities alike refer to as “Valentine’s Day,” a day to celebrate love and, more specifically, romance. This occasion is often marked by lavish dates and sentimental gifts, with the stereotypical portrayal of chocolate boxes and rose bouquets. 

Ash Wednesday, however, marks the beginning of a 40-day penitential period for the body of the Catholic Church. Ironically, chocolate is among the most common fasts during the Lenten season, and churches are forbidden from decorating their altars with flowers during this time. Many coupled-up Catholics may view this clash as a damper on what is seen as the most romantic day of the year. After all, Ash Wednesday not only marks the start of Lent, but is also itself a day of penance. Catholics are allowed one full meal during the day and should also abstain from meat. Some faithful may worry about missing out on the fun of dinner plans with these limitations, and some may decide to skip the fasts altogether. 

Before jumping straight to disappointment or disobedience, affected Catholics might do well to consider which two virtues not only underlie their Ash Wednesday penance, but also the greater foundation of the Church. One might guess that the first is love, but the second is romance — and not just any ordinary affection. Both traditions, as well as the foundation of the Church, carry the spirit of an unmeasurably raw and reckless romance, one that renders extravagant modern gestures restrained.  

The meaning of romance differs from person to person but is generally recognized as gestures that convey one’s passion and devotion to another. The idea that Christ’s death was the ultimate act of love is very important within the Church. The crucifix is hence the visual reminder of agape, the sacrificial nature of love, and the highest virtue within Christianity. The romantic love honoured on Valentine’s Day is, for modern Christians, intended to mirror Christ’s love for the Church to the extent that humans can imitate the divine. 

Romance in modern society is intended to convey or evoke those feelings of connection and excitement. Romance as it lives in Christianity is the giving of the self; to receive this romance is to receive life at the cost of life.   

This is the place of penance in romance. Ash Wednesday calls the faithful to commit to a 40-day fast, to sacrifice pieces of one’s earthly life in pursuit of a full, eternal life. Ash Wednesday is the Church’s human effort to imitate Christ’s divine triumph over sin in the original Lent. Upon reflection, Christians should remember that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, meaning that His human body likely suffered the full pain that accompanied 40 days of starvation: this is the raw, exposed nature of divine romance. 

When Satan later tempted Him to summon food for Himself, He felt the full extent of that temptation and still refused. His devotion to the call of the Holy Spirit was, at its core, a call to approach death in preparation to accept it. Satan’s invitation for Jesus to relieve His pain was a foreshadowing of the invitation to come, one that would appeal to His human urge to survive, most clearly captured in Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 26:39: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Jesus willingly subjected himself to the uniquely human agony that is the preparation for one’s death, as well as the uniquely divine agony of refusing temptation yet being punished in place of every human that succumbed. Following faith into the wilderness, giving of life for the sake of life with no consideration for the self or what is fair: this is the reckless, uninhibited nature of divine romance.  

One must also remember that Jesus was not alone during his life. Matthew 17:23 describes the disciples’ grief in learning Jesus’ fate and still followed Him toward it. In Luke 2:23, Mary was told that as Jesus’ mother, “a sword would pierce her soul,” yet in Luke 2:51, after experiencing the fear of losing Jesus at the temple, she “treasured all these things in her heart.” It is often quoted that grief is love with nowhere to go; similarly, Catholics should not limit the sacrifices of love to those who were martyred for it. Throughout the history of the Church, the willingness to suffer has always been an expression of love. 

St. Valentine himself was a priest beaten and beheaded for secretly administering the sacrament of Holy Matrimony following the emperor’s ban on marriage to encourage young men to enlist. If marriage is the act that translates human love into its capacity as an imitation of divine love, then St. Valentine’s death was his gift of life for the sake of helping others follow Christ’s example. You would be hard-pressed to find a more priceless gift at the jewelry store or chocolate shop.  

In this way, penance is the closest that humans can come to the romance of the cross. If you are Catholic and want to experience romance this Valentine’s Day, observe your fast and attend Ash Wednesday Mass. When you approach the flowerless altar, receive your ashes and gratefully remember all that they cost.