Did Pope Gregory XIII have it in for us? Before dishing on this sixteenth-century pontiff, I double-checked my facts, and yes, it was Gregory XIII who gave us the Gregorian calendar now in use throughout most of the world. And, yes, it is this same Gregorian calendar that has dealt lovers throughout the world a very harsh blow indeed. You see, Valentine’s Day 2024 falls on the same day as . . . Ash Wednesday. I kid you not: Valentine’s Day this year is a day of fast and abstinence for Catholics. If you and your special someone are fans of Chilean sea bass or shrimp scampi, you’re in luck, and so is the seafood restaurant that will snag your reservation for two. But, if you were looking forward to filet mignon or chicken francese or – my favorite – veal osso buco, well, you’re going to have to wait for next year . . . or book your Valentine’s Day reservation for a day earlier, Mardis Gras.
Like most of you, I suspect, when I learned that Valentine’s Day this year would coincide with Ash Wednesday, I grimaced and groaned, “Well, that stinks!” As I considered the calendar conflict a little more closely, however, I began to think that the coincidence – Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday sharing the same date, February 14 – was, in fact, a stroke of good fortune, and a fortuitous moment for all of us to ponder a connection of great importance. That connection is, of course, the connection between Lent and love.
I’m guessing that love is not the first word that comes to mind when we hear the word Lent. Rather, we associate Lent with things like sacrifice, self-discipline, self-denial, and asceticism. Lent is a time of giving up, of doing without, of taking up our cross and following Christ. What does Lent have to do with love?
Everything. And why is that? Because love makes all those apparent losses – all those sacrifices and all that self-denial – possible in the first place. What in some circumstances might seem like a heavy burden becomes a labor of love.
Let me illustrate by way of example. Late last week, I had lunch with two dear friends – the parents of three Chaminade graduates, all of whom I taught and knew quite well. Husband and wife have both suffered some challenging health setbacks, particularly the wife. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call them Peggy and George. The way Peggy and George take care of each other is truly heart-warming. They help each other get in and out of the car, navigate steps, remember important dates, and dress warmly against the cold. Peggy, who has recovered from a stroke, sometimes frets that she is a burden to her husband. As a matter of fact, she voiced that same concern at lunch, when her husband walked her to the ladies room.
At that point, I couldn’t help remarking, “Peggy, I don’t think it’s a burden on George at all. I think George lives to help you. It is his delight and his joy.” And so it is. Love transforms what might otherwise be a burden into a duty of delight.
Spousal love – in fact, human love in general – teaches us much about divine love. When we love much, big sacrifices don’t seem that big any longer. I witnessed that some twenty-eight years ago, when my dad was dying of cancer and my mom took such exquisite care of him, even as she would support almost all of his weight to help him down the stairs or to get to the bathroom. Three years ago, I saw the same kind of love repeated when my sisters Michele and Andrea teamed up with my sister-in-law Maryel to take care of my mom during her last weeks on earth. Each day after class, I would rush over to Mom’s apartment in nearby Port Washington and grade homeworks and reflection papers at her bedside. Meanwhile, Michele, Andrea, and Maryel did the real work, managing Mom’s meds with the precision of health-care professionals and keeping her clean and comfortable until she finally passed away on October 14, 2021.
All of this is possible because of the love that God has first shown us, a love that is brought to mind quite poignantly and powerfully during Lent and culminating in the Sacred Triduum that we shall observe in a little over a month and a half. “A man has no greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15: 13)
Father Pedro Arrupe (1907 - 1991), superior general of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983, penned these famous lines about love:
Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
Ok, maybe the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day isn’t ideal. I’ll concede that. But it’s hard to deny the link between love and sacrifice. A popular song by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber says virtually the same thing: “Love changes everything: how you live and how you die. . . . Love will never, never let you be the same.”
Lent and love, it turns out, are perfect companions.
On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,
Bro. Stephen Balletta, S.M.