Ash Wednesday vs. St. Valentine's Day

Originally Appeared in : 9802-1/18/18

This year is the first time since 1945 that St. Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday collide on the same day. This presents a conundrum for many Christians throughout the world. 


Ash Wednesday marks the onset of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence. It is known as the “Day of Ashes”. It is the day when the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of the sign of the cross. There is no doubt that the custom of distributing the blessed palm ashes to the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed by public sinners in the early Church. 


Putting a cross mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian at Baptism.


In addition to receiving blessed ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, Catholics between the ages of 14-59 are also as expected to abstain from eating meat and fast from eating more than three small meals on that special day as we strive to imitate Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. The only other day that Catholics are obliged to fast from excessive eating and abstain from eating meat is Good Friday. It is also our Lenten custom to abstain from eating meat on all Fridays in Lent.


So what are we supposed to do this year as this somber day falls on the same day that many people like to treat the special person in their lives to a delicious filet mignon dinner? I suppose we could have lobster or shrimp and grits instead but is that keeping the spirit of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent?


Every February 14, across the United States and in other places around the world, is the day on which we exchange candy, flowers and other gifts with loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. The history of St. Valentine’s Day and the story of its martyred patron is shrouded in mystery. 


The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.


We do know that February has long been celebrated as a month of romance and the commemoration of this special day contains vestiges of both the Christian and ancient Roman traditions, but those of us under the age of 73 have never had to deal with the dilemma of observing these two special days.


Perhaps as the pastor of the diocese, I can offer a few suggestions. We could celebrate St. Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras together on February 13. Or we could avoid the crowds at our favorite restaurant by taking our sweetheart to dinner on the weekend before Ash Wednesday. We can still do the cards and flowers on Ash Wednesday and still bring our families to church on Ash Wednesday but no prime rib. Let’s do that on another day.


Just think, we will not have to deal with this difficult decision for another 73 years!

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