There’ll be no reference to Valentine’s Day during our joint Ash Wednesday service this year, even though they both fall on the same day. They shared the calendar in 1923, 1934, 1945, and more recently in 2018; and will again in 2029. But that will be the last time they’ll “kiss” during this century.
Valentine’s Day occurs every February 14. Across the United States and in other places around the world, flowers, champagne, chocolate, and gifts are exchanged between beloveds, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and where did these traditions come from?
It turns out that Valentine was a pretty common name during Late Antiquity: a period corresponding roughly to the late third century and up to the sixth or seventh century (depending on location). And the Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred on February 14 (around the year 269), thus giving us the date for the day which is named after them.
One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Still others insist that it was Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop, who was the true namesake of the holiday. He, too, was beheaded by Claudius II outside Rome.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl—possibly his jailor’s daughter—who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, he supposedly wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and—most importantly—romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.
Ash Wednesday is the first of forty days of Lent. And before the end of Late Antiquity, it was known for the custom of placing ashes (which have been blessed) on the foreheads of worshipers as signs of penitence, mourning, and as a reminder of our mortality. It is observed as a fast in the church year, and the service is one of the Proper Liturgies for Special Days; though what we learned during 2021 (because of COVID), is that in both Lutheran and Episcopal practice, the imposition of ashes is optional. Who knew? Early on, in Rome, penitents were ceremoniously admitted on this day to begin their penance. And over time, when that practice fell into disuse (between the 8th and 10th centuries), the general penance of the whole congregation took its place.
And this practice goes back to Daniel 9:3, in which the prophet wrote: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” And so, ashes are associated with penance, which is the dominant theme of Lent; and so, in its earliest origins, Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting.
But the romantic (and perhaps more popular Victorian) love of Valentine’s Day (minus the flowers, champagne, chocolate, and gifts) finds its true fulfillment at the end of Lent, after we have sought reconciliation and at-one-ment with God; and when we again realize with the Easter sunrise, that true love overcomes death. As it is written in the Song of Songs:
Place me as a seal upon your heart,
for love is as strong as death.
Many waters cannot quench it;
And many rivers cannot wash it away.