For the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same date this year.
On Feb. 14, many Christians face a dilemma as they try to reconcile their faith with the traditional celebrations of romantic love. How exactly do you observe Valentine’s Day on the day Lent begins, marking the season of atonement leading up to Easter?
Can you be a believer and still celebrate with champagne and chocolate?
“Technically, yes,” says the Rev. Chris Valka, director of the Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, who also cautioned against excess. While desserts and alcohol are typically avoided on Ash Wednesday, Valka says “it’s really about the intentions behind the observance. What we’re really hoping for is a moment to recognize God is a presence in the relationship.”
Catholic bishops have been telling parishioners that Valentine’s Day doesn’t give the more than one billion members of the church worldwide an exemption from the holy requirements of Ash Wednesday: abstaining from meat and fasting. (It’s not a holy day of obligation for Catholics, which means the faithful are not bound to attend mass or receive ashes on their foreheads, a symbol of the Christian belief that God created humans from dust.)
“Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two days of the whole year on which fasting and abstinence are required,” Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo said in an online video. “Those who are accustomed to celebrating Valentine’s Day might do so, perhaps, the day before. Join it up with Mardi Gras, a great time for a double celebration.”
Here are a few more suggestions for how to mark Valentine’s on Ash Wednesday, with proper observance of both:
Volunteer for charity
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York and one of the most well-known leaders in the church, affirmed in a blog post that Ash Wednesday has precedence and Valentine’s Day doesn’t “lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial.”
He referenced the sacrifice of St. Valentine, who became a martyr for performing illicit marriages for Christians 18 centuries ago. Dolan suggested Catholics follow this example by thinking of others on Valentine’s Day.
“Why don’t we do an act of charity for somebody else? Why don’t we do an act of penance for one another as a sign of our love?” he asked reporters on Monday, the New York Times reported.
Dolan suggested volunteering, participating in a service project, or making a donation to a charity. “Love doesn’t depend on chocolates. It doesn’t depend on greeting cards. It doesn’t depend on flowers. Those are all nice things,” he said, as recounted by WCBS-TV. “It really depends on looking out for the good of the other person and being able to sacrifice for them.”
Get some vegetarian tapas
Catholics define “fasting” as eating “one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal,” so the observant by no means need to starve themselves on this Valentine’s Day.
The directive is to abstain completely from meat on Ash Wednesday, so couples can celebrate the day of love by sharing a vegetarian meal or perhaps a few plates of the right tapas, all while adhering to their religious obligations.
Celebrate faith through joy
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, reminded Catholics the Bible implores observers to experience joy and religious obligation simultaneously. According to the Book of Matthew 6:16, this how Jesus addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount:
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you.
“You can be happy and enjoy the day, and you certainly shouldn’t be dour, because then all the attention is on you, on your discomfort,” Tobin told the Times. “Take your heartthrob to a small-plates place, because fasting in the Catholic Church doesn’t mean that you go without, or with just water.”
Go to church
Reverend Pamela Smith of the First Lutheran Church in Nashville, Tennessee, says that the observance of Ash Wednesday is in many ways all about love. Smith believes that humans love each other because God loved them first, and Ash Wednesday is a way for Christians to remind themselves of that.
“We stand honestly before God and say, ‘You are God and I am not. You are God and I am a sinful human being,'” Smith told The Tennessean. “That honesty, that’s the foundation for the loving relationship.”
Going to church with a romantic partner can also be an opportunity to find new ways to connect with each other and strengthen your spiritual bond on a deeper level.
Get it on (if you are married)
Perhaps the most intimate Valentine’s celebration makes the most sense for Catholics on Ash Wednesday.
Catholic rules require abstinence, but “abstinence” in this case refers to staying away from meat, not sex. There is no restriction on married couples “expressing love in a sexual way” the Rev. Bismarck Chau of Newark told nj.com (sex outside of marriage is expressly forbidden in the Catholic faith).
There are no rules regarding sexual activity on Ash Wednesday, one expert told nj.com. In fact, there aren’t any specific days when the Catholic Church asks married couples to abstain from sex.
Show love to the people around you
Catholics are prohibited from indulging in excesses for themselves, so no steak dinners or chocolate hearts, but nothing forbids the faithful from showing love to the people around them.
Parents can still make Valentine’s Day crafts with their children. Couples can still buy flowers for each other. You can still send a box of chocolates to your mom. Even if she has to wait until Thursday to eat them.