Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day this year.
What’s a Catholic to do? Should we valiantly forgo the chocolate and shun all thought of romance? Or guiltily indulge in candied hearts and rom coms with ashes on our foreheads? Is there a way to harmonize these two seemingly opposed events?
Can we find the Catholic both/and?
At first it would seem that we can’t. Valentine’s Day celebrates the joy of human love, usually with lots of candy, flowers, and wine. Ash Wednesday is a day of penance, when we place all earthly delights on the altar and commit to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And given the choice between the two, of course we must choose to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.
In the first reading at Mass for Ash Wednesday, God calls the bridegroom to “quit his room and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:16). The God who created and delights in human love, calls us to look beyond it to its ultimate source. However good and lovely is earthly love, it cannot take the place of God. Only when we place our hearts on the altar and worship God alone can our earthly loves become what He created them to be: channels of His own love. Our hearts, wounded by original sin and prone to idolatry, must sacrifice in order to love truly.
Into the Heart of God
However, this call to repentance is also a call into a deeper love. In fact, almost all the Mass readings for Ash Wednesday say something about the heart.
In the first reading, God begs us to return to Him with our “whole heart” (Joel 2:12). Psalm 51 speaks of the “mercy,” “goodness,” and “compassion” of God that wipes out our offenses and gives us a “clean heart.” St. Paul implores the Corinthians, almost in the tone of a lover, to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus assures us that God sees into the secret of our hearts.
The whole season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday culminates in the greatest love story of all time, when God Himself, in human flesh, sacrifices Himself for each one of us in His bride, the Church. Ultimately, Ash Wednesday is an invitation into God’s heart.
This Valentine’s Day, embrace each act of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as an act of sacrificial love, a response to the greatest love of all.