Valentine's Day, meet Ash Wednesday

The world and the planet need sacrificial love, which is why Ash Wednesday beats out Valentine's Day

This year’s convergence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday offers lessons about that long sought after four-letter word love.

On the one hand, Valentine’s Day—a commercialized feast in memory of a mysterious Christian martyr—is a day devoted to chocolates, flowers, and the romantic love shared by couples.

Ash Wednesday is the Christian entrance into Lent—a season of forty days devoted to prayer, abstinence, and almsgiving, all meant as spiritual preparation for Holy Week, which concludes with Good Friday and Easter. Ash Wednesday begins all this with a day of fasting, self-denial, and repentance.

Given the choice, chocolate and champagne sound more appealing. But for those of us in the Catholic Church, along with many other Christians, Ash Wednesday will take precedence this year. This is not because Christianity seeks to avoid human love. Quite the opposite. We seek to explore its depths and celebrate its ultimate, communal, and glorious end.

To begin understanding what that means, we first have to admit that English is a lousy language when it comes to love. It offers only one word to describe our relationship with and desire for things like pizza, the Patriots, the people in our lives, and God. We may love them all, but we don’t love them in the same way or for the same end.

Other languages offer more options. The ancient Greeks in particular have the helpful words eros, philos, and agape, among others.

Eros, which gives us the word “erotic,” is the love of Cupid—that burning love at first sight, the love of physical desire. Eros is a vital and good force within human nature, but it’s not perfect. It can be erratic, jealous, and fickle, fading as fast is it comes, its self-serving nature often leaving us wanting more than the transient pleasures of one-night stands. At its worst, eros can be twisted into rape.

Agape, on the other hand, sacrifices totally and eternally for the good of the beloved

Philos, from where the City of Philadelphia gets its name, is another love that brings out the best, or worst, in us all. It is brotherly love—the affection among family, teammates, and military units. It is the love of country. But philos can also be twisted and self-serving. It can lead to ugly nationalism or the tribal violence of street gangs or multi-national corporations.

Agape, on the other hand, sacrifices totally and eternally for the good of the beloved. While rare in common usage in the ancient Greek-speaking world, early Christians who spoke Greek—like Saint Paul and the writers of the gospels—used agape to describe the love of Christ and thus Christian love. One need only look to the cross of Christ and listen to his challenging teachings to understand why.

And so Saint Paul can write rather novel words for his (and our) day. He tells us that true love—that is, agape—is patient and kind. It is not jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, quick-tempered, and it doesn’t seek its own interests or brood over injury. Love “does not rejoice over wrongdoing,” Paul wrote, “but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Which brings us to Ash Wednesday. All this bearing and believing, hoping and enduring, can be rather difficult for us mere mortals who, let’s face it, may prefer the immediate and sensual. To love and live as Christ did—that is, to sacrifice his very life—takes work, sacrifice, and often painful self-denial. And it is these qualities—these virtues—that are championed on Ash Wednesday, as well as throughout the Lenten season that follows.

We humans, endowed with free will, are thus faced with a choice. It’s one that we must make every day, and this year it’s uniquely underscored on February 14th.

We can love for our own ends—to satisfy our own limited and temporary desires—or we can love and sacrifice for the greater good of the beloved and, ultimately and eternally, for our own sanctification and for the common good of all.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.