When Ash Wednesday Falls Before Valentine's

February 4th, 2013

Have you discussed your Valentine's plans with your sweetheart yet? You might want to be doing that soon, since that either-loved-or-reviled commericalized day of hearts and flowers and candy is coming up next week. For you liturgical nerds who are more likely to know the moveable date of Ash Wednesday than the fixed one of St. Valentine's Day, let me clue you in: it's February 14. As in, the day AFTER Ash Wednesday this year.

"Great! So we swear off chocolate and then the next day someone gives us a big box of Godivas!" I heard one person exclaim.

Indeed, the austerity of Lenten observances, which for many people include abstinence from indulgences like sweets, alcohol, or meat, seems to clash with the way we typically envision celebrating Valentine's Day, with romantic dinners of rich foods and wine, and heart-shaped gift boxes full of chocolates. What do we do when these observances coincide?

Easter is fairly early this year—March 31—so the ashen kickoff to Lent is, correspondingly, fairly early. The earliest Ash Wednesday can be is Feb. 4, which it was in 1573, 1668, 1761 and 1818 and will next be in 2285 (thank you, Wikipedia). It's not terribly uncommon for Ash Wednesday to fall in its earliest possible ten days. It has fallen somewhere between the 6th and the 13th recently in 2002, 2005, and 2008. It will again in 2016, and in 2018, it will fall precisely on the big V-Day.

I'm not meaning to imply that a secular holiday (based on a Catholic saint's day as it may be) is more important than the solemn observance of Ash Wednesday. (I've written numerous times about how it is, in fact, my favorite liturgical holiday.) But given that many couples—or at least one partner in that couple!—do like to celebrate Valentine's Day, here are a few options to consider when celebrating this year:

1. Celebrate Early

If you are a traditionalist, for whom the overlapping of these holidays is most likely to cause a problem, you may want to celebrate Valentine's early this year, going out this coming weekend, or on the day before Ash Wednesday, since that day—Fat Tuesday, AKA Mardi Gras—is tailor-made for pre-Lenten indulgence. Christian cultures all over the world have various traditions for going all out before Lent, from the wild parties in New Orleans and Rio to the more reserved Protestant celebration of "Pancake Day." (If you don't booze it up under ordinary circumstances, syrupy-sweet breakfast foods are pretty indulgent in comparison :)

So go all out some night between now and next Wednesday. Enjoy the chocolates, order the bottle of wine and the prime rib—or take advantage of IHOP's annual National Pancake Day (Feb. 5 this year) to enjoy a free short stack and raise money for charity. The contrast will make the solemnity of Lent even more meaningful.

2. Keep It Simple

Valentine's doesn't have to be an elaborate affair. Celebrate your relationship with a sincere note of affection and appreciation. Begin a daily Lenten devotion as a couple, and give thanks for human love as you reflect together on the way of Christ. Far more than the superficial romatic sentiments usually associated with Valentine's Day, the self-giving life we are all called to live as Christians is truly indicative of the committed love we enjoy and celebrate. What a great way to begin Lent, by focusing first on our service to those closest to us, so that we can expand the circle over 40 days (and beyond) to more fully commit ourselves to service out in the world.

See some of the Lenten devotions in Ministry Matters' Lent studies bin.

3. Do For Others

If the purpose of a Valentine's date is to spend time together, why not go together to show love for others by serving dinner in a homeless shelter, or spend what you would have on a fancy dinner on groceries for a local food pantry. Take flowers to your doctor's office, kids' teachers, school secretary, nursing home residents, and other people who might go unappreciated. Buy flowers at a grocery store and give them to the clerk.

Especially for people who tend to "hate" Valentine's Day because it reminds them of a relationship they don't have, remind them they are special and loved nonetheless. Think of single people in your congregation (especially young women and teen girls), recently divorced or widowed persons, and others who might need cheering up. Send them a simple valentine to say "you're special, beautiful, and loved."

4. Embrace the Temptation

If you take Lenten fasting and abstinence seriously (i.e. not giving up chocolate for the sake of your waistline rather than your faith), consider a Valentine's Day that falls during Lent a sacrifice to be embraced. Decline the date to a fancy restaurant (or choose the vegetable plate and water over the Italian feast), and save the candy you receive to eat with your Cadbury eggs on Easter. (If you're really hard core, leave the box of chocolates on the counter as a reminder to pray.) Read about Jesus' time in the wilderness, and reflect on his sacrifices for us in life and death.

Here are a few articles about the meaning of Lenten fasting, to help you prepare.

Coincidences of the calendar are no cause for despair. Love is a blessing year-round, both the human love we enjoy and the divine love we receive and share with the world.

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