According to my research, the last time Valentine’s Day fell on Ash Wednesday was 1945. That was 73 years ago. The world was still fighting World War II. I’m guessing most readers of this blog weren’t even born yet; if you were, it’s quite likely that event is outside your living memory.
I’ve seen some posts and articles from confused Catholics as they try to navigate this unusual combination. Does the Church offer, like, some kind of dispensation from fasting on that day, so folks can go enjoy their fancy meal with their loved ones? (Nope.) But if I’m giving up chocolate for Lent, is it okay if I have chocolate on Valentine’s Day? (Not really.) Do we need to go to Church that day? (Well, it’s not a day of obligation, per se, so it’s no more or less required than past Ash Wednesdays.) But aren’t these two holidays, like, really incompatible?
On the surface, they seem pretty disparate. Ash Wednesday is a religious event about coming to terms with our own mortality, so we can begin in earnest the Lenten process of bringing ourselves closer to God. Valentine’s Day has been largely co-opted by the secular world as another reason to spend and consume, in this case to prove our love and devotion to another human being.
Let’s talk a bit about earthly love for a moment.
For those of you in a romantic relationship with someone else, think about what that person has done for you. Keep it firm in your heart.
Now, ask yourself: Is what that person done for me more or less vital to my continued existence than, say, oxygen? Is that romantic relationship more essential to your ongoing life than, for example, the sun?
If you’re being honest with yourself, the answer is, “Not really.” Oxygen is required before we are born to allow our cells to thrive and continue. Every scrap of food on the Earth has sprung directly and indirectly from the sun’s rays, and the continued revolution of the Earth itself relies on the existence of that celestial orb.
So why, then, do we almost certainly feel a greater sense of devotion and appreciation for the loved ones in our lives than these two essential elements of the cosmos, without which we literally cannot live?
I suspect it has to do with the fact that we take oxygen and the sun for granted. Why? Because they cannot die. Oxygen and the sun have existed before we were born, and will continue into the unseeable future, until God decides otherwise.
From time to time, I’ve struggled with the big questions of life as a person of faith, including, “Why does God allow death?” One way I’ve answered this to myself is realizing that mortal death puts the onus on me to truly, deeply love and appreciate those around me, because I cannot take them for granted. Those around me will die someday. I will die someday. My time in this mortal world is not infinite, nor is the time of those around me. And the time we have is not guaranteed, nor is it consistent. If I want to be absolutely assured that my wife knows how much I love her and how much she means to me, I need to tell her, in words, heart, and deed, every chance I get. If I want to be certain that my parents know what they’ve meant to me, I need to express that. If I want my child to know how proud of the child he is and the man I hope he grows to be, I need to tell him.
Ash Wednesday is an appreciation of our mortality. Unlike our mortal love for one another, God’s love for us is infinite, and extends beyond the confines of death. But, like our mortal love for one another, the time we have to realize God’s love is finite. The time we have to accept and understand our place in God’s plan, to open our hearts to God’s love, to fully commit ourselves to leaving behind the un-Christian aspects of mortal living . . . well, that time is finite.
How often have we heard the cliché, “I wish I would have told them how I felt while they were alive”? It stems from failing to realize our time is limited until it’s too late. So, too, is our time limited — so, so limited — to fully commit ourselves to God. It’s not God who is failing to love us earnestly; it’s our fault if we don’t embrace the wonderful gift that is God’s love. And if we’ve failed to do that before we die . . . well, then it’s too late.
Love God with all your heart. Love one another. These two great commandments from Christ so beautifully encapsulate the fundamental requirements of our faith. And having Ash Wednesday coincide with Valentine’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to reaffirm aspects of both on the same day.
If your partner shares the faith with you, recognize what a wonderful opportunity it is to begin this year’s Lenten journey together. Work to grow your faith and commitment to God together. If you’re united under the Sacrament of Marriage, recognize how blessed you are to have that lifelong commitment you’ve both made to each other, and how wonderful it is to walk united with Christ through life’s troubles and tribulations.
If your partner doesn’t share your faith, then this is a good opportunity to help explain the importance of Christ’s words in your own life. Love God with all your heart — the primary of the two great commandments. Without that foundation, the secondary commandment — love one another — is weakened, like a spouse who hears the vow, “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life” and decides that just doing one of those two things is good enough.
And if you don’t have a partner, that’s perfectly okay! Ash Wednesday is open to all believers, unifying us in our commitment to being the best people we can be to more wholly prepare ourselves for a life with God. If your path includes romantic relationships in the future, this discipline and reflection can’t help but make you a better potential partner down the road. And if your destiny is the single life, then the Lenten journey is a great reminder that we are never truly alone when we have the infinite love of God waiting to embrace us with open arms.
At the very least, you might want to sort out these feelings while you can . . . because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day coincide again in six years (in 2024), and then again five years after that (in 2029). Like God’s love, calendars are consistent, enduring, and open to all . . . but, like relationships, calendars can be kind of strange sometimes, too.