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When Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, what’s a clergyperson to do?

Feb. 14, 2018, is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Photo by MaxPixel via Creative Commons

(RNS) — For many this year, Feb. 14 is a day of mixed messages.

It’s Valentine’s Day, a time for chocolate, roses and perhaps a dinner date. But it’s also Ash Wednesday, which for many Christians is the start of Lent, a period of penitence that precedes Easter Sunday.

How do clergy reconcile this calendar clash, the first of its kind since 1945? Approaches abound:

  • An Oregon clergy couple celebrated Valentine’s Day early on a recent road trip because they knew they’d be busy at a United Methodist church’s Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 14.
  • An Episcopal priest in Maryland has prepared a “Lovesong” service for Ash Wednesday that emphasizes various kinds of love that can be celebrated on Valentine’s Day.
  • An upstate New York Catholic bishop suggested Mardi Gras might be a good time for romance this year.

The Revs. Eilidh Lowery and Jeff Lowery are a married couple who are co-founders of the Sellwood Faith Community, an experimental church in Southeast Portland, Ore. She is a pastor and he is a deacon who directs its missions projects. Photo courtesy of Eilidh Lowery

Some clergy feel the church must come first on this dual day.

The Rev. Eilidh Lowery, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., who will help lead a worship service with her guitar-playing husband, said they’re used to sacrificing personal pleasures for ministerial duties.

“Our work has always seemed to impact Valentine’s Day,” she said, from her husband’s interviews as he sought ordination to a trip with lay leaders to hear Christian author Rob Bell. “This year we are focused on worship that night.”

In Upper Marlboro, Md., as Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday approached, the Rev. Peter Antoci, pastor of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, was talking with members of his parish about the seeming conflicting themes of love on Valentine’s Day and the penitence of the Lenten season.

“What are we going to do — put this out under the theme, ‘I love you; I’m sorry’?” he said he joked with church members. “But the more I thought about it the more I thought sometimes when something is odd or uncomfortable the best thing to do is to lean into the discomfort.”

He combined the prayers and ritual of Ash Wednesday with Scriptures about love — including the romance of Song of Solomon and the “God is love” verse from 1 John — and encouraged his music minister to choose selections more appropriate for a wedding than for Lent. The choir, along with his spouse, agreed to celebrate Valentine’s Day some other time this week so its members can sing at the 7:30 p.m. evensong service.

“It’s love in all of its senses,” said Antoci, who plans to say “Remember that you are beloved, and to love you shall return,” during the imposition of ashes (instead of the traditional “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”).

Taking a different approach, Catholic bishops such as Buffalo’s Richard J. Malone have opted to stick with traditional Ash Wednesday plans and said church members should make the “small sacrifice” of fasting that day as they consider the “great love” he said was demonstrated through Jesus’ suffering and death.

“Those who are accustomed to celebrating Valentine’s Day might do so perhaps the day before — join it up with Mardi Gras, a great time for double celebration — or another nonpenitential day,” he said in a “Required Fasting” video posted on his Twitter account.

Andrew W. Lichtenwalner, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ department dealing with laity, marriage and family life, said Ash Wednesday “takes precedence as a day of fasting and abstinence” even as the church marked the U.S. celebration of “National Marriage Week” that concludes on Feb. 14.

“The coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is a way for Catholics to reflect on the true meaning of love, an act of self-giving,” he said.

Lent also ends with another coincidence: Easter Sunday falls on April 1, or April Fools’ Day.

In an Episcopal Cafe column titled “This is no time to be cute,” the Rev. Andrew T. Gerns of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pa., argued that neither day bookending Lent should leave tradition behind.

“And this is not a moment for cuteness, it is (a) moment of humility,” he wrote, adding that six and a half weeks later, “it won’t be a time for pranks, but for awe.”

Other columnists recommended ways to live out the spirit of the day — named for more than one St. Valentine, the first of which was no patron of love — as well as the Christian obligation to begin Lent.

Canadian writer Clare Lazzuri, writing in The B.C. Catholic, a newspaper for British Columbians, offered options that started with each letter of the word “heart” — from helping around the house to talking to God each day.

Robert Carnes. Photo courtesy of Robert Carnes

Robert Carnes, writing for ChurchMarketingSucks.com, suggested 15 ways churches could connect the two occasions, from sending handwritten love notes to houses within a one-mile radius to working on a service project.

But one idea on his list that was separately debated on Twitter did not get a lot of love from some clergy: heart-shaped ashes.

“Drawing a cross is hard enough,” Lowery said of the gooey ashes-and-oil combination she imposes on people’s foreheads.

Antoci agreed: “You can’t stay inside the lines.”

But both Lowery and Antoci found a way to incorporate sweetness — even if delayed — into the dual day.

Lowery said her husband of 15 years will likely make heart-shaped pancakes for her and their 12-year-old daughter – “chocolate chip pancakes, of course.”

Antoci took another approach: chocolate candies with a Scripture passage on each wrapper.

“As people leave the church on Wednesday, I’ll greet them at the door as they leave and I’ll give everybody a piece of Valentine’s chocolate,” he said, “with the advice that they should read it and eat it on Sunday, which is not a fast day.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

4 Comments

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  • Is this really a problem? Maybe for the weak-minded religious type who have trouble sorting out their meaningless traditions.

  • In a Venn Diagram of overlapping themes: death and love (actually, well trod theme from the erotic to Romeo and Juliet) I keep coming back to…..one of the really bad venereal diseases. No one else I’ve shared this with thinks it’s as amusing as I do. I suspect that the people who are using the jumping off point of the 2, manifesting love as a discipline in Lent, are really on to something.

  • I thought Valentine was brutally murdered for his faith because it was unpopular. Maybe the day should focus on persecution of religion (or in the US the constant movement by some, including many advocated by RNS to restrict religious freedom.)

  • While Richard Malone’s argument regarding the practices of the Church first, and civil celebrations second, his statement is hypocritical. Let’s look ahead into March. What happens when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday of Lent? Hundreds of thousands of priests AND BISHOPS have dispensed the obligation of the Lenten abstinence on that day, so that the people can eat their corned beef. Why isn’t the emphasis on Church, religion and faith placed first, then, and recommend the eating of beef be celebrated the day before or the day after? Some consider Valentine a myth. Isn’t Patrick and the snakes a myth? You can’t have your Lenten obligations and eat your corned beef, too!

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