This Ash Wednesday, Let Love Reign
An Ash Wednesday reflection by Günther Simmermacher
By a quirk of the calendar, this year Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. For some Catholics, this may present a conflict between whether to observe the Church’s disciplines governing Ash Wednesday — the start of the penitential season of Lent — or to engage in society’s expectations of cheerful consumption on Valentine’s Day.
The choice is between a day of fasting, abstinence and prayer, or one of uninhibited declarations of romance in the setting of fancy restaurants.
The Church’s discipline is clear: most Catholics over the age of 14 are required to fast — that is, they may have one main meal and two small meals which combined are smaller than a normal meal — and to abstain from meat.
For Catholics, the obligations of Ash Wednesday must take priority over the traditions of Valentine’s Day. On Ash Wednesday we cannot toast our romantic luck over a lavish dinner, and the Valentine’s chocolate hearts should not be consumed.
Some Church leaders have suggested that Catholics transfer the feast of romance — which bears the name of a martyr and saint who was not particularly romantic — to the day before Ash Wednesday: Shrove Tuesday. That is a sensible suggestion. The days before Ash Wednesday are supposed to be days of joy and enjoyment, a jovial time before the 40 Lenten days of sacrifice, penance and interior cleansing begin.
The Church has long taught that we ought to give the savings we make from our Lenten sacrifices — giving up chocolates or smoking or alcohol or gambling or eating out — to the poor. But the wounds of Christ are present not only in the poor.
We can find them in the oppressed, for whom we can engage ourselves. We can find them in the stigmatised, for whom we can advocate. We can find them in the lonely, whom we can visit. We can find them in the unforgiven, to whom we can extend forgiveness and reconciliation; and of whom we can ask forgiveness and reconciliation. We can find the wounds of Christ everywhere in our broken world.
Lent is an opportunity for us to have a renewed experience of God’s love, given to us in Christ — a love that each day we, in turn, must pass on to our neighbour, especially to the one who suffers most and is in need.
If Valentine’s Day is indeed the feast of love, then it seems particularly suitable that this year it coincides with Ash Wednesday. This year, let God’s love be the focus on Valentine’s Day — and leave the romance stuff for another day.