by Joanie Butman
This past week I celebrated Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday with my usual gusto. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The term refers to the last chance to eat rich, fatty foods – and for some, the last chance to drink copious amounts of alcohol -- before the Lenten season, which for many includes giving up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.*
Truth be told, I celebrated Fat Friday, Fat Saturday, Fat Sunday and Fat Monday as well. The recent blizzard contributed to that phenomenon as I sat by the fire sipping cocoa and plowing through a stack of books and a well-stocked fridge and wine cellar. On more than one occasion I wondered, “Who couldn’t love a good snowstorm?” It was my own little version of a New Orleans Carnival where moderation is thrown to the wind in anticipation of Lent. Could there be more polar opposites than Mardi Gras and Lent. Does the excess of one cancel out the sacrifice of the other? Hardly. If that were the case, it would take a lifetime of Lents to cancel out the excesses of my youth.
Not all Christians choose to participate in the observance of Lent. In fact, some even look at it with disdain considering it an effort to earn God’s favor, which couldn’t be further from the truth. But we are all susceptible to that kind of thinking because, let’s face it, who couldn’t use a few brownie points in the hardest course you will ever take: life?
This week also heralded the celebration of Valentine’s Day. Cruel timing as many give up sweets during Lent. Even so, the confluence of Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Lent this year couldn’t be more appropriate as St. Valentine’s message is a call to love. Prior to teaching religious ed when my children were young, I knew nothing about St. Valentine other than the cupids and chocolates associated with the holiday honoring him. Thinking this was going to be one of the easier lessons to cover, I showed the class the requisite movie.
The First Valentine tells the story of Valentine, a priest who defied Roman law forbidding marriage. Roman Emperor Claudius II thought married men would want to stay home to be with their wives and children rather than leave to become soldiers, which he desperately needed. Nevertheless, Valentine believed in the sanctity of marriage so he chose to marry couples anyway, conducting secret nuptial ceremonies. (Hence the loose connection to cupid I suppose.) Roman soldiers interrupted one such ceremony and arrested the couple. While they were in prison, Valentine sent them messages of love and encouragement. When it was announced that the couple was to be executed, Valentine persuaded the Emperor to allow him to take their place. Before his execution, he was given one last chance to renounce his faith, which he refused. He was killed on the 14th of February in the year 269.
As instructed, I followed the film with a lesson on St. Valentine’s message that “Love is an action, not an emotion.” All was going fine until I mentioned how difficult it is to love others sometimes – especially our enemies. Guess who chimed in, “She’s hard to love sometimes too!” I was being heckled by my third-grade daughter! Unruffled, I continued until she then blurted out, “Don’t believe her. She doesn’t act that way at home!” At this point I was feeling anything but loving toward her, and love certainly wasn't the action I was considering. I vaguely remember her defending herself on the tense ride home. “But, Mom, it’s true.” I switched to second graders the next year. My son was much more forgiving.
There is no better example of love being an action, not an emotion than the response of the Newtown community to the December 14th tragedy. Returning from Boston recently, I noticed a huge billboard proclaiming, “We are Sandy Hook, We Choose Love.” One would imagine that love was probably the last emotion they were feeling in regard to that horrific event, yet love is the action they boldly choose rather than acting out of despair, bitterness or revenge. While the rest of the world is holding candlelight vigils on their behalf, they are the ones shining the brightest light of all as an example for the rest of us.
I’ve learned an enormous amount from my children over the years (not the least of which was that I am hard to love sometimes! Really, who isn’t?) Regardless, their pure, simple, uncluttered view of the world allows them to see what adults are often too busy to notice, remember or embrace. Jesse Lewis, one of the young victims at Sandy Hook is teaching a valuable lesson posthumously. “Nurturing. Healing. Love.” is his Valentine’s message to the world. His mother, Scarlet, has begun a foundation which embodies Jesse’s message. It is called the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation. The website explains:
Just days prior to the tragedy, Jesse wrote three words on his chalkboard at home: "Nurturing. Healing. Love." We understand these final words as a calling from Jesse that says, ‘I have something for you to do for us. That’s to consciously change an angry thought into a loving one’ because it is a choice.” The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation collaborates with professional educators to bring lasting meaning to Jesse’s murder by developing school-based educational programs to change our current culture of violence to one of safety, peace and love for everyone in our world. This is the single guiding principle, the sole purpose and motto of our work: Teaching Others to Choose Love.
This mirrors beautifully St. Valentine’s call to love everyone – especially our enemies.
Finally, the reason I think Valentine’s Day falling at the beginning of Lent is so appropriate is because it is during Lent that we make a conscious choice to express our love as an action(s) just as St. Valentine advises. I don’t view Lent as an extra credit project. I don’t choose to give something up or do something special for someone else during Lent to earn favor or forgiveness. I choose to do it because I already have them. My efforts are simply an expression of love. It is a Valentine’s gift to God given with gratitude in response to His love and sacrifice for me. It’s no different than wanting to do things you know any loved one would appreciate – something that tells them how much you treasure them and how grateful you are for their presence in your life.
How do you choose to put love into action?
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