Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer, IVE
As some of you might know, this year is the first year since 1945 that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have coincided. At first, it might seem that the two celebrations couldn’t be any more different, since Valentine’s Day has become the rather worldly, sentimental, and saccharine carnival of earthly, emotional love, and Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, with its somber liturgies, fasting, abstinence from meat, almsgiving, and the like.
Yet, as strange as it might seem, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are closer than we might think: both point us beyond that one day, on towards the greatest love that there is.
The Valentine’s Day celebration of the love of one person for another, as earthly and fleeting as it might be, is but a pale comparison to God’s heavenly, eternal love for us. Likewise, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our preparations for Holy Week and Good Friday, when Eternal Love, who “so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son,” paid the price for our redemption. Neither day is the end of the journey; rather, both are a beginning, a foretaste or foreshadowing of the fullness that is to come.
In particular, Ash Wednesday reminds us of two great truths about God’s love: first, we’re reminded that God’s love is shown in His mercy towards us. As the entrance antiphon reads: “You are merciful to all, O Lord, and despise nothing that you have made. You overlook people’s sins, to bring them to repentance, and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God.” As Jesus told one mystic, “My Heart takes comfort in forgiving. I have no greater desire, no greater joy, than when I can pardon a soul.” Yet, our appreciation of His mercy must go hand in hand with the knowledge that we are the ones who have separated ourselves from God; we can only understand the depths of God’s mercy if we come face-to-face with the abyss of sin into which we have fallen.
Second, Ash Wednesday reminds us that real love isn’t just about feelings; it entails making sacrifices for the Beloved, loving Him as He asks to be loved, namely, by “keeping His commandments,” and taking up our crosses and following Him. For the next forty days, the reality of the cross must project itself onto our daily lives in a special and profound way, since it was on the cross that Christ atoned for our sins and showed His love for us. Hence, it is there too that we must find the meaning of our lives. Our vocation, whatever it might be, is a vocation to the cross, and there is no more opportune time to consider this than during Lent as we follow Christ on His journey to Calvary. As Saint Padre Pio said, “I love the cross, and the cross alone.”
Today’s Gospel reminds us, over and over, that our love, expressed in our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, must be sincere; we must truly seek Christ in all we do. To do otherwise is to love praise more than we love Christ, to accept an imitation of love instead of the real thing. As Fulton Sheen wrote, “The cruelest words in all of Scripture are, ‘They have received their reward.’”
As we begin our journey, we can take a close examination of our lives: how are we progressing on the path to holiness? Are we really aware of the depths of our misery, and the greatness of God’s mercy? What keeps us from drawing near to Him? As Saint Gemma Galgani wrote, “But Jesus, Jesus, it is to Him that I must be attached!” Are we attached to Him alone, and do we love Him as He loved us, on the Cross?
Today, let us ask for the grace, through the intercession of Mary, Refuge of Sinners and Our Lady of Sorrows, for the grace of true conversion, to really take advantage of this Lenten season to come to love God as we ought, and never forsake Him.
Priests of the Institute of the Incarnate Word