Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied.”
— T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?
Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.
But must it be this way?
It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.
The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.
As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities? Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?
We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God. It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.
In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.
This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.