Wednesday, 2/14/18 — Ashes to Ashes, Love to Love

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.

Today’s readings: Jl 2:12-18; Ps 51:3-4,5-6AB,12-13,14,17; 2 Cor 5:20—6:2; Mt 6:1-6,16-18

About the Author

Despite being a professional writer and editor for over 15 years, Steven Marsh is more-or-less winging it when it comes to writing about matters of faith. Steven entered the church in 2005, and since then he's been involved with various ministries, including Pre-Cana marriage prep for engaged couples, religious education for kindergarteners, and Stephen Ministry's one-on-one caregiving. Steven lives in Indiana with his wife and son. Despite having read the entirety of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he's still surprised at elements he rediscovers or reflects upon in new ways. The more Steven learns about the faith, the less he feels he knows; he's keen to emphasize that any mistakes are his own.

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  1. I love your explanation of why God allows death – it’s the only one I’ve ever heard/read that makes sense to me.

  2. Thank you so much Steven. May God grant us the grace to have a truly reflective Lent,with Him as the focus.

  3. Thanks Steve for this very wonderful reflection. Lent is a very challenging period because it has got a lot of temptations. This is because you may decide not to take anything for the day in order to fast but on such a day you find a colleague offering to buy you lunch and you are unable to refuse the offer. I like it most because it enables you to go deep in prayer and for long periods

    God bless you Steve and your family

  4. Thank you, Steve. What a great reflection for lent and one of the best explanations for God permitting death that I’ve ever heard or read. May God bless you and all our faith community with a fruitful Lenten season.

  5. Hey Steven,

    Your pondering of death is something that we all do from time to time. Doesn’t matter how old or young, what religion or even if you believe in God or not. So when it comes to “deep thinking” I turn to people who I consider gifted. In this case Fr James V. Schall, S.J..

    I just read a short article by Fr Schall and he said “…we are not in fact created for this world alone. We find existence in this world to be a span of time during which we must decide what we choose to be forever. No human life is complete in this world until it is finally judged. However much time we are given in this land of the living before we die, it is enough, short or long, in which to decide, by our actions and thoughts, what we will be.”

    He concluded by saying “…we are free to choose our eternity – or to reject it. Creation in its glory exists in order to find out which alternative we choose as manifested by the way we live our lives in the time before we die.”

    What are the actions and thoughts that help form our decision? From today’s Gospel, giving alms, praying and fasting.


  6. thanks Steven. you hit the nail in the head. It’s truly an awkward day but for those who knows their priorities in life – it’s not. God first.

  7. Anybody else remember when it was called Saint Valentine’s Day? When I was in Catholic elementary school, that’s what it was called.

  8. I remember calling it Saint Valentine’s Day as a child. Your reflection Stephen was excellent. It really spoke to my heart. Thank you and God bless you

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