How to honor Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday
If you’re giving up sweets for Lent, you may not be happy to learn that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. But while the day typically marked by heart-shaped candies, Hallmark cards, and giant teddy bears may seem antithetical to the beginning of Lent, a closer look at St. Valentine reveals a much deeper love story.
Tradition has it that the third-century martyr St. Valentine would marry couples in secret because of an edict by Emperor Claudius banning marriage. Valentine, who wanted to support marriage during an age of promiscuity, was ultimately imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded by Emperor Claudius for refusing to deny his faith.
There are two accounts of St. Valentine, and it’s unclear whether they refer to the same person. One identifies him as a priest in Rome, but the other describes him as the bishop of Terni. Though the Church still recognizes him as a saint, St. Valentine was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius are now celebrated on Feb. 14.
Though little can be confirmed about his life, in death St. Valentine remains the patron saint of lovers as well as beekeepers and epileptics. His skull can be found today in the minor basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, reminding visitors of the sacrificial nature of love.
“I think the convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day can really show us how we’re supposed to do penance — not only as individuals, but in communion with others, and how our penance is always ordered toward our neighbor,” said Father Dustin Dought, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The USCCB has confirmed that the day of fasting and abstinence takes priority over candy and extravagant Valentine’s Day dinners.
“The obligation to abstain from meat and to fast remains even though it’s Valentine’s Day, unless the diocesan bishop has dispensed from that,” Dought said.
But the two holidays do not have to be in opposition. While this year there is penance involved, couples can still “celebrate the love that they share,” Dought pointed out.
“We always abstain or we always fast for some purpose,” he explained, “and so to think that, ‘Okay, well, in a special way, today I am going to abstain and to fast out of love for my spouse, or out of love for the person that I’m dating,’ that … can serve the purpose of Valentine’s Day.”
And a simple Valentine’s dinner date is still possible.
“We say we can have one normal-sized meal,” Dought said. “So if a couple, say, were to have that meal in the evening, I think there’s something beautiful about, ‘Oh, I’m having a small breakfast or a small lunch; I’m eating in very small portions throughout my day out of love for God, but also because my beloved and I will enjoy our normal-sized meal together.’”
“Because penance is a sign of love of God but also love of neighbor,” he added.
The Church sets aside two fasting days every year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics 18–59 years old are required to fast these days. Catholics over the age of 14 are also required to abstain from meat on those days, and on Lenten Fridays.
According to the USCCB: “When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.”
This year, couples may want to consider celebrating Valentine’s Day on Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday — the day before Ash Wednesday, the last hurrah before Lent begins.
Ash Wednesday involves not only fasting and abstaining from meat but also almsgiving.
“When we fast from food, we save money,” Dought pointed out, adding: “And so the almsgiving of Lent is connected to the fasting of Lent. I think it could be another beautiful thing [for] a couple to make a charitable donation together.”
“We frequently can think of penance as an individual thing, but we see Ash Wednesday and all throughout Lent, really, it’s the Church doing penance as a body,” he explained. “And so I think that would be true also for a couple or for a family.”
When days of abstinence land on holidays, dioceses will sometimes make exceptions. For instance, on St. Patrick’s Day last year, 72.6 percent of dioceses gave some form of dispensation from the Lenten Friday fast of no meat, allowing many American Catholics to celebrate the holiday with traditional meals such as corned beef and shepherd’s pie.
But this is not usually the case for Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, where meat and a large meal are not essential parts of the day.
“Lent is a time that we place things aside,” Dought explained. “And I think there is something helpful because we’re placing certain things aside, we can discover the meaning of the day more fully: the person of St. Valentine’s, the story of his life, because these other things that aren’t essential to the celebration of this day have been pushed away.”