Eat, pray, love: An Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day dilemma

Ah, steak and chocolate, the indulgent mainstays of Valentine’s Day dinners. And exactly the kind of extravagances that observers of Lent, which also starts on Wednesday with Ash Wednesday, are asked to avoid.

The confluence of the events — occurring for the first time since 1945 — has created a dilemma for Roman Catholics and followers of other Christian denominations who observe Ash Wednesday. How can one simultaneously mark a solemn day when foreheads are tapped with a symbol of mortality as a call to humility and repentance, while celebrating one that glorifies the kisses and Champagne of romantic love?

Around the country, Roman Catholic bishops have been issuing reminders to parishioners that the holy obligations of Ash Wednesday still apply. They include receiving ashes, abstaining from meat and fasting — which Catholics define as eating one normal meal and two small meals that don’t add up to the normal meal in quantity.

“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, New York, told parishioners in a video posted online Friday. “Those who are accustomed to celebrating Valentine’s Day might do so, perhaps, the day before. Join it up with Mardi Gras!”

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, took a similarly somber approach, despite his reputation as perhaps the most jovial of American bishops.

“Ash Wednesday has precedence, and the coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day would not lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial,” he wrote in a blog post Monday.

“St. Valentine willingly bows to this Sacred Heart, for which even he lovingly gave his life 18 centuries ago,” Dolan wrote, in a reference to the martyrdom of St. Valentine in the third century.

He called for celebrations in line with the day’s spirit. “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 said in an interview.

Last year, when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Lenten Friday, when Catholics are asked to abstain from eating meat, Dolan was a voice of leniency. Like at least 80 other bishops around the country, he issued a dispensation to permit New York Catholics to eat corned beef and cabbage, the traditional Irish dish.

Ash Wednesday is considered a holier day than a regular Friday in Lent, so no bishops have issued a dispensation this time. Still, it’s possible to find a more liberal outlook among the region’s clergy.

Just across the Hudson River, for example, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, said he sees no harm in marking both days at once.

The reason, Tobin explained, is found in the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading from the Book of Matthew. Joy and religious obligation can, and in fact should, coexist.

The Gospel reads in part: “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.”

What does this mean?

“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,” said Tobin, who is known for his pastoral approach.

“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,” he said. “It’s the kind of dilemma you might have if your grandmother’s birthday and Valentine’s Day fell on the same day. They are both values for you, so you conjugate them; you try to figure out how to do it.”

That doesn’t mean Catholics should give fasting short shrift, he added. Not only is it required, but it links believers to a worldwide community, and to the experience of those who don’t have enough to eat.

But there is a way to use spiritual love to deepen the love between couples. Before heading off to get those vegetarian tapas, “go to church first, and get some ashes, especially if the two of you are on the same spiritual wavelength,” Tobin suggested. “And it might be another thing that unites you."

Given this, it might not come as a surprise that Tobin also doesn’t see a conflict between celebrating Easter and April Fools’ on the same day — within reason. That’s the next rare coincidence coming up on this year’s calendar, on April 1.

“The worst that could happen is that you hide someone’s Easter basket where they can’t find it, or give them diet eggs that have nothing inside,” Tobin said, brainstorming some appropriate April Fools’ Easter gags. “Or diet chocolate,” he added. “Wouldn’t that be awful!”

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