Valentine’ Day, as we know, occurs on the 14th of February. Previously a part of the universal calendar of the Church celebrating an early martyr of the Church, the feast is now celebrated only by local custom. This decision was not made to diminish the sacrifice of the martyr or to call into question his existence, but due to a lack of clarity about which accounts pertained to which saint, because, as it turned out, many early Christian saints and martyrs shared the name Valentinus!
Though it is a virtuous act to honor the sacrifice and gift of St. Valentine on February 14th, it also happened to be on Ash Wednesday this year, the start of our observance of Lent.
Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation; therefore, the faithful need not attend Mass. However, attendance is strongly encouraged as a spiritual offering fitting for the commencement of this sacred Lenten season. Those who participated in this Mass were able to receive the imposition of ashes. Two optional exhortations can be used for the imposition of ashes, both with corresponding symbolism.
One option for the exhortation is: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. This is simply to remind us of our mortality–that our lives on earth are brief. The words are intended to help us weigh our decisions not according to the perspective of time, but of eternity. Whatever we do here, little or great, has significance on earth only for a short time. However, since we are all immortal spirits, these actions also have consequences for all eternity in the life to come. This reflection leads naturally to the alternative exhortation.
The other exhortation is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The word ‘repent’, for Christians, has its roots in the biblical word ‘metanoia’. Metanoia means to change one’s mind, heart, or actions. The ashes, then, are an outward sign of our intention to change our way of thinking and living during Lent. It is a promise to God and to our brothers and sisters that we will take new, positive steps in our journey with Christ. We do this because we realize that our relationship with Christ, and all that pertains to it, that ultimately has eternal value in the life to come.
If we have not already chosen our Lenten observances, instead of racking our brains over what we want to give up, or what prayers we want to add, or acts of charity we want to do (all of which are good), I invite us to approach this Lent a little differently. Let’s begin with a single question: what is the one, most important thing I can do to progress in my relationship with Jesus?
The answer to this question will most effectively help us to choose our Lenten practices.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!