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Valentines and Ashes!

St. Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday are both tomorrow. What do we do?

The Church’s liturgical calendar throws up some oddities sometimes. One set of Sundays, and other feasts and fasts, is fixed in relation to Easter, which moves around the spring. Another of feasts is fixed to Christmas, and a third is fixed to calendar dates. And so different occasions can coincide: a feast of the “sanctoral cycle” can fall on a Sunday, and all the feasts of the spring and early summer are vulnerable to being swallowed up by the events of Lent and Eastertide.

A feast day like Christmas will fall on a Sunday only approximately once every seven years. Even less frequent are the occasions when significant dates of the sanctoral and paschal cycles coincide. The most famous of these occasional coincidences is that between Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. It last happened in 2016 and will not happen again until 2157.

This year, we have the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and the traditional date of the feast of the Roman martyr St. Valentine.

The tidy-minded modern mindset is inclined to see these clashes as inconvenient. Not only are there elaborate rules about which occasion takes precedence, but sometimes the celebration of one is moved by a day to avoid it. (March 25 this year is the Monday of Holy Week, which means that, like with Good Friday, the Annunciation will be moved to the Monday after the Octave of Easter, April 8.) Huge efforts were made over the course of the twentieth century to stop Lent being cluttered up with feasts of a non-Lenten character.

This was not the attitude of our predecessors in the Faith, who celebrated both coinciding events on the same day and looked for a symbolic significance in the coincidence. The feast of the Annunciation marks the day of the Incarnation, and tradition has it that Good Friday fell on the same day. The Holy Thorn of Andria in Italy seems to agree: over the centuries, this relic of the Crown of Thorns has shed a few drops of blood when Good Friday falls on 25th March. The same coincidence marked the day the English martyr St. Margaret Clitherow suffered in 1586. In a different way, the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph, which always fall in Lent, give us something to look forward to.

St. Valentine and Ash Wednesday create a particular kind of clash because of the way they have become embedded in popular culture. St. Valentine was moved from February 14 in the liturgical reform of 1969, but he has remained there stubbornly in the popular imagination, as the patron of young couples. Ash Wednesday’s significance as the start of Lenten observance has been overwhelmed in some cultures by the celebration of “Carnival” or “Mardi Gras,” the “farewell to meat” that precedes it. This has taken on such a life of its own that it has spread over several days, swamping Ash Wednesday itself.

For this reason, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who oversaw the reform of the liturgy in the 1960s, expressed regret that he could not move Ash Wednesday to a Sunday. (See The Reform of the Liturgy, p. 307, n. 7.) He did manage to break the connection between the greeting-card industry and the liturgical feast of St. Valentine, sticking in St. Cyril and St. Methodius on February 14 instead. Despite this, even the Vatican Information Service called the 14th St. Valentine’s Day when Pope Francis, in 2014, thought it a good day to bless engaged couples. Bugnini’s fear of the secular significance of the day overcoming its religious meaning was itself overcome by the desire to make something of religious significance out of a day noticed by the secular world.

There are various theories as to why Valentine’s Day has become associated with romantic love, but the association has no obvious connection with his holy life and heroic death in the third century. It is an example of popular culture simply making use of the Church’s calendar, at a time when this was not just the “liturgical calendar,” but everyone’s calendar. In Britain, the Monday after the “twelfth day” of Christmas, Plough Monday, was the day to return to work after the break, and rents were (and in some places still are) collected on “quarter days” fixed by the great feasts of Christmas (December 25); the Annunciation (March 25); the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24); and Michaelmas, or the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29). Phrases from the liturgy became associated with particular actions or attitudes: the word placebo comes from a psalm (114 in the Vulgate) commonly recited for the dead, including by those wishing to ingratiate themselves with the deceased’s family. This isn’t the secularization of the holy; it is the penetration of ordinary life by a ubiquitous devotional culture.

Placing romantic couples under the patronage of a celibate who was executed for his love of Christ in the distant past, for the sole reason that his feast falls in the early spring, seemed perfectly logical and appropriate to the pre-modern Catholic mind. Personally, I can’t see anything wrong with it, either. The couples certainly need his protection today, and, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux said in the context of her own eccentric devotions, “there is no jealousy in heaven.” Trying to turn the day into something not connected with the kind of love ordered to the goods of this world—marriage and children—is both quixotic and puritanical. These goods are good, and God made them. They have to be treated with care, and this is where the Church’s teaching can genuinely help out the world.

St. Valentine’s falling on Ash Wednesday this year is a reminder, like some of the more spectacular calendrical coincidences, that life is made up of both feasting and fasting. There must be no feasting without fasting, and no fasting without feasting, either.

Ash Wednesday is unusual as a day that is not a holy day of obligation but still widely observed as a devotional day, with people attending church to receive their ash. I would recommend this year that celebrations associated with St. Valentine take advantage of the proximity of Shrove Tuesday—“Fat Tuesday,” the feast before the fast of Lent—so that the importance of Ash Wednesday is not forgotten.

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