St Valentine, Lent and true love

Plus 2024 Lent resources

Today (as you may have realised) Valentine’s Day unites with Ash Wednesday – the day that ushers in Lent, which is the 40-day period of prayer and fasting in the lead-up to Easter. The last time these occasions met was in 2018.

It’s notable that of these two traditions, which both have Christian roots and evolved during the same era, one is practised far more widely than the other.

Our society is quick to embrace the sentimental, romantic love espoused by Valentine’s Day (although the ‘real’ St Valentine was anything but soppy, as we’ll go on to discuss). However, the sacrificial love represented by Lent is a far less attractive sentiment.

Yet, deep down, most of us know that true love goes far beyond corny platitudes and even heartfelt admissions of affection. True love is tough, as well as tender. It’s gritty and gutsy, not mushy and saccharine. It goes far deeper than lust or words alone.

True love is – and always must be – self-sacrificial.

True love is the unconditional love of a parent for a child. It’s the 24-hour devotion given by a carer to their loved one. It’s giving without expecting anything in return. It’s sticking together through tough times. It’s seeking the good of someone else, even when they don’t want to help themselves and won’t recognise your efforts. True love is – and always must be – self-sacrificial.

In Valentine’s defence, the love for which he was initially honoured was indeed the selfless kind. While records about St Valentine are scarce, historians have concluded that this man – most likely a Catholic priest – lived out his faith in the face of Roman persecution and was martyred as a consequence. Varying accounts accredit St Valentine with comforting Christians, sharing his faith with a Roman aristocrat and marrying couples during the reign of Claudius II (which is why he became the representative of romantic love). This last action is significant for two reasons: 1. marriage between young people had been outlawed at the time in an attempt to keep soldiers focused on war rather than wives; 2. polygamy was rife in that society, so by continuing to wed couples in secret, St Valentine was upholding the Christian Church’s belief in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman for life.

St Valentine was upholding the Christian Church’s belief in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.

While the type of love associated with St Valentine seems to have been misconstrued, there is no greater example of true love than that of God for all humanity, ultimately demonstrated through Jesus’ life on earth and crucifixion. This truth is clearly expressed in 1 John 4:10: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The extravagance, purity and outcomes of this love – in reuniting all humanity with our heavenly Creator – can never be replicated by us mortals. But Lent is a great way to recognise and respond to Christ’s sacrificial love.

Let us continue to ask for God’s help to share his love with others selflessly and devotedly.

Ash Wednesday – when churchgoers often wear ashes on their foreheads as a “public demonstration of repentance for sins” – marks the start of Lent. During Lent, in response to Christ’s forgiveness and love, believers are invited to sacrifice small things, for example, by fasting and giving to those in need, and to experience a period of prayer like the one Jesus experienced during his 40 days in the wilderness. (Some 2024 Lent resources are listed later in this article for you).

The convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is helpful, I believe, in reminding us of the stark contrast between what commercialism says love is and what true love actually looks like. This difference brings to mind the popular quote by C.S. Lewis, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses).

As we contemplate the next seven weeks before Easter, may we embrace the true love of Christ, responding to him in repentance, with gratitude and by laying down our wills and seeking his. And, like St Valentine, let us continue to ask for God’s help to share his love with others selflessly and devotedly.

2024 resources for Lent

A collection of 2024 Lenten resources is available on the National Council of Churches Australia website.

Surprising Hope by Common Grace – through seven weekly video messages reflecting on key Bible verses, this 2024 Lent series explores “how in the moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see hope and a future burst forth through the depths of grief and darkness of sin.” The series includes teachings from Ben Chong, Jarrod McKenna, Belinda Groves, Safina Stewart, Jason Forbes and Naomi Wolfe.

Following Jesus for a World Restored by Tearfund Australia – weekly email reflections and prayer prompts for the seven weeks of Lent.

Lent Event Resources by UnitingWorld – resources for faithful climate action during Lent, from daily emailed reflections to videos and action ideas.

Hallow app’s Lent Pray40 Community Prayer Challenge for 2024 – Build a habit of prayer this Lent and join hundreds of thousands of Christians worldwide participating in this prayer challenge, featuring actors Mark Wahlberg and Jonathan Roumie. You can sign up for a 90-day free trial.

You Version Lent and Easter Bible reading plans and daily devotionals

Where Do We Go From Here? and other studies for Lent by the Anglican Board of Mission – the national mission agency for the Anglican Church of Australia – these resources are downloadable and/or available to read online, with printed versions available to order.

Repent and Believe – Be Filled with the Love of God – the 2024 Lenten companion by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney – this beautifully designed resource is “designed to support parishes and individuals in fostering conversion and renewal in preparation for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.” In creating it, the Parish Renewal Team says, “We hope that this resource will provide additional opportunities to build and strengthen community life in our parishes as we gather in-person or online to pray, reflect and share about God’s Word during Lent.”

Watch and Pray – Resources for Lent 2024 by The Church of England – while the printed resources may not be viable for us in Australia, you can sign up for free daily Lent reflection emails (except Sundays) from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day – with Bible readings, short reflections and a practical challenge, as well as prayers linked to weekly themes.

Easter and Lent resources at Koorong – a selection of hard-copy devotionals and books are available.