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Ashes to ashes, heart to heart

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Catholic couples face a conundrum this Feb. 14: eat fish filet for Valentine’s Day, or choose another day to celebrate romantic love out of respect for Ash Wednesday? As Catholics looked at the 2018 calendar and realized the rare confluence — Ash Wednesday falling on the memorial of St. Valentine — some took to social media.

“It’s a frugal husband’s dream year,” quipped Catholic Herald Facebook follower Kenneth Wolfe.

Twitter user Sydney Ascencio tweeted, “Gotta convince boo to make Valentine’s Day a sushi date because Ash Wednesday #catholicproblems.”

Getting into the spirit of the solemn start of Lent, Twitter user Melissa said, “Catholic Valentine’s Day idea: take your special someone to Mass for ashes and then remind each other that your time together is precious because someday you’re both going to die #mementomori.”

Catholic blogger and mom of six Rosie Hill, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, designed some humorous Valentine’s cards, including one that said, “Roses are red, so’s the carnation. Let’s go to confession and adoration! Happy Lenten Valentine’s Day.”

Researchers at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University, point out that the two days will overlap again in 2024 and 2029 and that in 2096, Ash Wednesday will occur on Leap Day — Feb. 29 —  for the first time in the church's history.

Valentine's Day is a memorial but not a solemnity. So as is typical on Ash Wednesday, all adult Catholics are required to fast and are not allowed to eat meat. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, but Catholics are encouraged to go to church to receive ashes.

The day of prayer and fasting doesn't lend itself to a celebration typical Valentine’s Day: candy, a fancy dinner and gift-giving. But some still plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Valentine’s Day.

“This year, I will be happy to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday with my husband, my two young children and my 152 students,” said Erin Thielman, a religion teacher at St. Mary School in Alexandria.

“St. Valentine is known as the patron saint of lovers. With St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday being on the same day, we will be reminded of the sacrificial love of Christ by going to church and receiving ashes on our forehead,” she said. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a holiday about love than to reflect on the merciful love of Christ.”

heller lent valentine's day

Others plan to postpone their date night. “I'm sure (my wife and I) will still spend time together over a nice meal, but it will probably have to be the evening before. We have something much more important to do together this Feb. 14,” said Michael Watts, a parishioner of Precious Blood Church in Culpeper and a candidate for the permanent diaconate.

“I have recently reached the phase of formation where I vest for Mass and sit in the sanctuary — a situation that we anticipate becoming the norm for the rest of our lives. As a married couple, we are still adapting to this physical separation during the liturgy. It will feel particularly unusual this Ash Wednesday.”

But the separation has made Watts realize a more important kind of togetherness — the couple’s oneness in the faith. “It kind of brings to mind that sappy ‘80s cinema tune lyric, ‘even though I know how very far apart we are, it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star.’ Instead of wishing upon a star, we are each joining our souls together in communion with the light of the world, with Love Himself — on Valentine's Day and every time we attend Mass together,” he said.

No matter what plans couples make, the holiday is a powerful opportunity to reflect on love and sacrifice.

“We’ll eat our chocolates on the 13th, but what better way to start Lent than Ash Wednesday falling on the same day we celebrate love,” said Catholic Herald Facebook follower Caroline Joy, a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Mission in King George.  “Isn’t that what it’s all about!?”

Carol Zimmermann at Catholic News Service contributed to this article.  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018