Not since 1945 have Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day fallen on the same day. It’s a tricky one for practising Catholics in relationships or courting: how to have the traditional romantic dinner for two with all the trimmings AND observe the fast day that’s in it. And I’m sure restaurants will be rethinking their menus, too.
For as long as I can remember, fasting entailed one main meal (meatless) and two collations (light meals). It also included no booze, no sugar, and no cakes, sweets, or biscuits. We had to be very specific in our house, after a long argument one year on whether a Jaffa cake was considered a sweet or a biscuit.
As I couldn’t remember the rules, I did a quick check.
Apparently, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. [With 70 being the new 50, I wonder if this will change?] But the meatless thing applies to everyone aged 14 upwards. And the meat-fast applies to all Fridays that fall during the 40 days of Lent. I also discovered that when it comes to the collations, the two smaller meals together cannot be as big as a main meal, which put paid to the idea that my everyday eating plan already consisted of one main meal and two collations.
Vegetarians might ask why fish isn’t lumped in there with meat. Apparently the Church sees meat as coming from animals who live on the land. Those that inhabit the sea are a different kettle of fish (I know, I know).
And if you count the 40 days from Ash Wednesday, it only takes you as far as the beginning of Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter Sunday – and not to Easter Sunday itself. I can’t believe I never counted those days as a child.
But back to what to do – feast or fast, hearts or ashes?
A church in Cincinnati is using the same-day thing to launch a Lent is for Lovers programme in their community. They’re having a Lenten-style feast tonight that includes everyone, singles too. In the UK, Bishops found a solution by suggesting that their congregations celebrate St Valentine’s Day a day early – on the 13th. In St Louis, the Lenten Fish Fry is what it’s all about and today’s fish fry comes with long-stemmed roses and pink margaritas – so where did I get the idea you couldn’t drink on Ash Wednesday… mmmm
And then there’s what to do with the ashes? Practising Catholics will go to mass and stay afterwards to receive their ashes (a physical representation that we came from dust and unto dust we shall return – a stark reminder that we shouldn’t lose the run of ourselves). I prefer Ecclesiastes over Genesis when it comes to dust:
Ecclesiastes 3.19-20: … for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
The ash is daubed on their foreheads and left there all day/night. This mightn’t be such a style issue today, though, as in many countries Ash Wednesday is celebrated on the following Sunday. I had a first date in Hungary one year, on the Sunday immediately following Ash Wednesday. I showed up in my ashes and after a few minutes of hard staring, he reached across the table with a napkin to helpfully wipe my forehead. I recoiled. It didn’t bode well. It’s hard not to stare at someone who has a great big black mark on their forehead, yet strangely, I never once thought of wiping away the ashes myself, before I went to dinner. It simply isn’t done.
Whatever you decide, feast, fast, or simply just another Wednesday, have a good one.
For more on St Valentine’s Day, check out a piece I did back in 2012 for the Budapest Times.