True love leads to freedom: Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day

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Forty Days of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2024
Joel 2:12-18 + 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 + Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Illustration from Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, 14 February 2018.

This is not the first time that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, the start of the holy season of Lent of 40 days before Holy Week in preparation for Easter. The last time they coincided was in February 14, 2018.

Actually, there is no problem at all with both happening together on the same date. Both celebrations have the heart as its focus, inviting us to examine how much love we have in our hearts, because, ultimately when we die and face God our Creator, He will judge us on how truly we have loved while here on earth.

And because they both speak of love, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day confront the reality of death.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we all die which is the meaning of the imposition of the ash on our foreheads while the priest says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  But, we do not merely die and end life on earth. Notice how the ashes imposed on us are shaped as cross because Ash Wednesday assures us that we die in the love of Jesus Christ our Savior who leads us into eternal life.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s reminds us of our undying love for those bonds of love we make throughout our lives as lovers, friends, and admirers.  Lovers and couples pledge – with or without God – their love for each other “til death do us part.” Anyone who truly loves and had truly loved knows that death is love’s final test. And the whole world is filled with so many beautiful stories and magnificent buildings and structures that remind of us one’s undying love like the Taj Mahal in India.

Therefore, today is a wonderful celebration, an amazing juxtaposition of the sacred Ash Wednesday and the secular Valentine’s Day on this February 14 so that we may purify the love in our hearts, that our love is not merely expressed in words but most especially in deeds.

From Sisters of Providence of Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods.

For his Lenten Message this year, the Holy Father had chosen the theme of freedom in his reflection by going back to the Exodus experience of the Israelites. Indeed, love and freedom go together. Always.

Lent is the season of grace in which the desert can become once more – in the words of the prophet Hosea – the place of our first love (cf. Hos 2:16-17). God shapes his people, he enables us to leave our slavery behind and experience a Passover from death to life. Like a bridegroom, the Lord draws us once more to himself, whispering words of love to our hearts.

Pope Francis, “Through the Desert God Leads Us to Freedom” (Lent 2024)

Love is most true when there is freedom. We cannot truly love if we are not free. And the more we love, the more we are free, that is, free to love, free to be caring, free to be kind, free to be honest and true, free to be sincere.

From simchafisher.com.

Remember your first crush or your first love. Amid all the exciting feelings and “kilig moments” we have had every time our eyes met those of our crush or when our skin touched each other, one thing we always made sure was to keep it a secret.

During our time, it was imperative that we boys and men keep our feelings to our selves about our crush and love interests because, the moment our love, our feelings are made known, problems happen. Everyone in the class or barkada starts teasing, making us unnatural in our words and actions as they dictate us on what to do and what to say. Our crush or beloved then gets irritated and uncomfortable with all the attention she gets not really from us but from every Maritess and Marisol around!

I have realized later in life that when something so deep is so true, most often we treasure it in our hearts, keeping it in secret not for anything else but to make it grow and mature. In this case, into selfless love. People who brag their love or crush or just everything in life are often the most untrue and unfree. Everything is just a show or palabas for them, a front that is not real which is what we see on social media. Jesus tells us true love that is free is something more of the inside than of the outside appearances:

Jesus said to his disciples: ”Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you… When you pray do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogue and on street corners so that others may see them… When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

Matthew 6:1-2, 5, 16, 18

Photo by author, Our Lady of Fatima University-Laguna, 19 January 2024.

Love and freedom go together. Love grows and deepens only when there is freedom because love is a grace from God that naturally flows out from us, from our being. There is no need to make noise about it or be dramatic for everyone to see. Just let your love flow as the song from the 1970’s said.

When we “manipulate” our love, we become self-conscious instead of being mutual. Love is always other centered as the late American Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, “the sign that we truly love is when we love somebody more than ourselves.” When we have so much of ourselves, when we are selfish, that is when we reject God and eventually others.  That is why every sin is essentially a refusal to love which bothers us inside as we feel guilty and become unfree to be who we are, beloved and loving.

Lent invites us to love and be free through conversion, a turning of our hearts away from the wrong loves we have pursued and led us to loneliness, emptiness, and sadness within. Love and freedom come from within our hearts where God dwells; hence, the call of the Prophet Joel to turn our hearts back to God:

Photo by author, Lent 2019.

“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”

Joel 2:12-13

To speak of the heart is to speak of the whole person whose only fulfillment is found in God.  A heart that is far from God is a person separated not only from God but also from others, even from himself.  Only a heart that is inclined to God is able to truly love and be truly free. A heart without God is a heart without love, a heart that is not free because it had gone cold and dead.

Conversion then leads us to reconciliation, to being one again in God in Jesus Christ as St. Paul admonished in the second reading, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). To be reconciled with God is to be one with Him in our hearts through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting that are the hallmarks of the Season of Lent that lead us to true freedom that deepens our love for God and others.

Prayer enables us to pause and regain our freedom to examine our real selves, of how truly free are we especially in this world when there are so many voices dictating us on everything that have left us alienated, lost, and confused within.

Almsgiving sets us free from greed and helps us regard our neighbors as brothers and sisters. It deepens our love for God because our daily encounters with those who beg for our help point us to God Himself who provides us with everything we need.

Fasting on the other hand weakens our tendency to be self-centered, “disarming” us of our false selves, removing the masks we put to impress others so that we can grow and mature as it makes us more attentive to God and others.

As we begin our 40 days of Lent today, let us journey into our hearts and into the heart of God so we can truly be free to love like Jesus Christ His Son who died on the Cross on Good Friday.

Ash Wednesday on a Valentine’s Day is the perfect reminder to us all that the Cross is the best expression of love symbolized by the heart that is free and willing to suffer and die for a beloved. May we “not receive the grace of God in vain” (2 cor. 6:1). Amen. Have a blessed week ahead.

Veritas Editorial

Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

President of Radio Veritas

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