02 February 2018
Valentine's Day falls on the same day as Ash Wednesday. What does this mean for Catholics?
St Valentine’s Day is a day for romantic love. Ash Wednesday also celebrates great love, sacrificial love
For the first time since 1945, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day this year. So some Catholics are wondering whether they should mark them both, and if so how.
Although St Valentine is neither on the national calendar of the bishops of England and Wales or any of their diocesan calendars, nor on the Universal Calendar for the whole church, he is celebrated on some national and regional liturgical calendars. For example, in the Rome diocese, there is a Church of St Valentine.
The Tablet sought advice from Bishop of Salford John Arnold.
“People flock to Mass and to receive their ashes on Ash Wednesday, it’s one of the most powerful days in the Church’s calendar. This year it falls on 14 February, popularly celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, a day for romantic love," he told us.
"Ash Wednesday also celebrates great love, sacrificial love which goes the heart of our very being. I would encourage Catholics to embrace that love, and wholeheartedly live this one day of penance and abstinence which marks the beginning of the powerful season of Lent. And similarly, to embrace the light-hearted spirit of mardii-gras or carnival, on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, 13 February, by bringing forward their romantic Valentine’s encounter, should they wish to do so."
In a further coincidence, Easter Sunday is on April Fools’ Day. Is there a message, albeit a subliminal one?
On this question, I sought advice from a Franciscan friar known for his pastoral gifts in his ministry among students.
Both coincidences – meant quite literally – sum up the paradox of the Gospel itself, he explained. If you seek to save your life, you’ll lose it, if you give your life generously you’ll save it. Or, as the late, great Herbert McCabe OP once said: “If in this life you don’t love, you’re dead; if you do, they crucify you.”
The penitential practices of Lent, as all acts of penance in a Christian context, are aimed at learning to love, learning to live unselfishly. Far from being spiritual athleticism, they help us to hone our ability to give, share, let go and let be – all vital aspects of loving.
The friar continued: "Easter puts to naught all the empty, specious wisdom of the world, with its emphasis on and obsession with efficiency, productivity, results, success, thrift and reward. God’s generous foolishness, in sharing in his Son his life with us, in shedding his blood for us and in accepting the consequences of being fully human in the inhuman world we’ve created. This is the theology of failure, teaching us that failure is our friend, not our enemy. Life and love leaping forth from dying to the self, the false self, that is."
The Catholic bishops' marriage and family life co-ordinators have also been giving the issue some thought.
Coordinator Caroline Dollard noted how, from the family perspective, on the feast of St Valentine what is being celebrated includes the sacrificial love of a couple.
So many of Valentine card messages are about "going to the ends of the earth for you", "giving my all for you", "love you with all my heart" – all witness to commitment that goes way beyond romantic love and is more akin to the agape love which ties in so beautifully with the unconditional sacrificial love that we celebrate in our faith, and in this case, on Ash Wednesday. Human love is God’s plan from the beginning, said Dollard.
The World Meeting of Families, in Dublin later this year, has developed resources for catechesis, Let’s Talk Family, Let’s Be Family, the special moments, February and St Valentine’s Day. There is a big campaign starting as part of the "Amoris: Let’s Talk Family: Let’s Be Family" preparatory catechesis for the World Meeting of Families 2018 centred around St Valentine’s Day which takes a different look at the day.
Instead of buying chocolates or flowers people are invited to give a gift of time to their loved one – a meal, a walk, a remembrance of how they met, a technology-free evening together, joint prayer time, tender hugs and more. The idea is inspired by "The Joy of Love", where Pope Francis emphasises the fundamental importance of time together and personal communication as foundations for a love that lasts.
So the family life office advises, respect and absolutely prioritise Ash Wednesday And its obligation for fasting – no meat, one full meal and two smaller ones. So have a simple but delicious Lenten meal, and talk about love and what it means.
Thus the immense sacrificial love of God at heart of Ash Wednesday is celebrated in miniature in lives turned out to others in human love, along with the messy reality of life.
Dollard continued: "I think the graces of falling in love, being in love, the Sacrament of Marriage and the graces hidden in family life can be brought consciously to mind on Valentine's Day… helped by Ash Wednesday."
So she advises: "Let’s build on the sentiments of the Valentine’s day love, and talk about how we live out our love… quite unconsciously most of the time, in the daily feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for life,… seeking out the lost, going the extra mile, in our relationships… sometimes it bubbles up and you can see the face of Christ, feel the Gospel in action..as you sit and hold the hand of your dying mum, or listen for hours on the phone to your depressed son, or get up in the night to feed the baby, tend to the sick child, go to work to earn a wage to keep bread and butter on the table, put on another load of washing etc… this is the love of God at work in us.. unselfish, and celebrated on Valentines day. "
Finally, Martin Foster, liturgy director at the Bishops' Conference, notes: "Valentine – Although very ancient, the memorial of this saint is left to particular calendars since little is known concerning him except his name and the fact that he was buried on the Flaminian Way on February 14.
"One of the principles of the revision of the Liturgical Calendar (1969) was – how do you balance ‘Universal’ and ‘Roman’. So there was (and remains to some extent) a preponderance of saints associated with the city of Rome (and first few centuries) – because we (RC) ran with the Roman Rite, but the Calendar should also represent the universal nature of the Church – so saints from every continent and age. If you are going to achieve the latter (universal) you have to reduce the former (Roman)."
Pic 1: A worshipper at York Minster on Ash Wednesday last year. Credit: PA
Pic 2: Many people looking at their February calendars are doing a double-take with Ash Wednesday falling on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. (CNS illustration/Joe Heller)
Pic 3: The Ignatian Solidarity Network, a coalition of Jesuit schools and universities, is encouraging those in the network and beyond to celebrate Valentine's Day Feb. 14 by sending cards to lawmakers asking them and others to "Love your neighbor" and to send "migrants welcome" Valentine's Day messages Feb. 11-18. (CNS illustration/Ignatian Solidarity Network)
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