The romance of Lent toward the reality of Easter

Some have been making note in Catholic circles about the coincidence that Ash Wednesday this year falls on Valentine’s Day and Easter Sunday on April Fools. 

Some Catholics have actually wondered which of the celebrations should take precedence. 

On January 26, the Archdiocese of Chicago put out a statement in response to various inquiries as to whether it would still be obligatory to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, presumably so that Catholic couples could have romantic steak dinners. It noted what will be true in every diocese, that “the obligation of fast and abstinence must naturally be the priority in the Catholic community” and suggested that those wishing to celebrate Valentine’s Day might do so on Mardi Gras.

Parenthetically, such inquiries show the unfortunate confusion that can ensue when, among other things, various dioceses with many Catholics of Irish origin give dispensations whenever St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Lenten Friday so that Catholics can — without needing to attend any Liturgical celebration of the great and abstemious Archbishop of Armagh — eat corned beef and drink Guinness without guilt. Such decisions unintentionally leave the impression that feasting according to the spirit of the secular corruption of what once were religious feasts seems more important than Spiritual discipline, something that in an increasingly secular age may be wise to reconsider. 

The coincidence of Ash Wednesday falling on February 14 this year allows the Church to emphasize something different and very important. 

It’s a rare occurrence and so the Church doesn’t have this opportunity often. Since 1900, Ash Wednesday has fallen on Valentine’s Day only three times, in 1923, 1934 and 1945. Looking ahead it will fall on Valentine’s Day again in 2024 and 2029 and then not again for the rest of the century. So in 200 years, it will happen six times. 

For enquiring minds, the rarity comes from the way the date of Easter is established. Easter always falls the first Sunday after the first moon after the Spring Equinox. This year the Spring Equinox is March 20, the full moon on Saturday, March 31, and Easter the following day. Ash Wednesday is always 46 days before Easter.  

The opportunity the Church has this year is to emphasize the type of love that ought always to mark our faith and characterize our Lents. Very often Lent is marked by a minimalism unworthy of someone who passionately loves God with all his mind, heart, soul and strength and passionately loves one’s neighbor in need. People often give up something, like chocolate and sweets, or alcohol, or chewing gum, for their fasting, or frequently put some loose change in a Rice Bowl box for almsgiving, or commit themselves to praying the Stations of the Cross on Fridays for prayer. There’s nothing wrong with any of these practices, which are all steps in the right direction — but let’s be honest: very small steps. 

They’re a little like a husband’s picking up a generic card for his wife on Valentine’s Day, or getting some aging carnations at the florist because he thought roses were too expensive to get for his wife or because he didn’t think about getting roses until the last minute and they were sold out. We can contrast such an approach with that of husbands or boyfriends who really seek to show, on Valentine’s Day and beyond, just how much they love the woman in their life, not in exclusively material ways like jewelry, but in the thoughtfulness and time they put into demonstrating why, how and how much they cherish her. 

Real love, after all, is shown in a capacity to sacrifice for the one loved, even to the point of laying down one’s life. Valentine’s Day is an occasion to show that type of sacrificial love. Stinginess, whether in terms of monetary cheapness or a general lack of effort, is often a sign of a weak love. 

As Christians, we should love God more than any man has ever loved any woman. We should be willing to sacrifice for Him more. We should be willing to make more time for Him than those in love make for each other. We should be more passionate about pleasing Him than any boyfriend seeks to make happy the woman to whom he wishes to propose. 

Lent is a time when we can focus above all on whether God’s love for us and our love for Him are as they ought to be. As Pope Benedict used to stress, Lent is not about making minor course corrections in our lives, but about experiencing a radical and total conversion. It’s meant to be a moral exodus in which we give up the easy superficiality in which we live and resolve to adopt faithfully, step by step, Christ’s own path of total self-giving. It’s meant to be a Passover from mediocrity to sanctity, from being a part-time disciple to inserting ourselves fully into Christ’s Paschal Mystery, dying to ourselves so that Christ can truly live within us. 

The confluence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day can be an occasion for us to focus precisely on this total conversion to a life of real love by and for God. God asks us, not “Do you want to be My Valentine?,” but rather, “Do you want Me to be the love of your life?” The ashes we bear, testifying to our desire for conversion, can be like roses presented before Him. Our fasting can show our hunger. Our prayer can reveal how much we wish to share time with Him in loving conversation or even in silence. Our almsgiving can be a means by which we share not only in His lavish goodness to us but also in His deep concern for our needy neighbor. And just as in a relationship where the love expressed on Valentine’s Day should be echoed far beyond February 14, so the love for God we show on Ash Wednesday is supposed to effuse Lent and beyond. 

Lent is ultimately meant to be a season in which we ponder the incredible, spousal love of Jesus Christ for His Church shown in His dying so that His Bride might live. There’s no greater love story in history than that of the true, indeed extreme, love of Christ for us. There’s no greater choice we’ll ever make than to respond to God’s eschatological Marriage proposal and align our lives with His nuptial passion. 

Lent is a pilgrimage toward Holy Thursday when the Marriage between Christ and His Bride is consummated as His Bride takes within His Body and Blood and becomes one flesh with Him, when the New Eve is formed from the pierced side of the New Adam on what St. Edith Stein called the bed of the Cross, and then culminates in the joy of the Easter Vigil, when the prophecy of Isaiah, proclaimed as the fourth Old Testament reading, is fulfilled when he says, “The One Who has become your husband is your Maker. The Lord calls you back like a wife!” 

A Lent like this will lead us, on April 1, to an Easter without guile, in which we rejoice on the practical joke God has played on death, on sin and on the devil: when even after public crucifixion, the Bridegroom rose triumphantly from death in order to be able to raise us, His beloved, with Him and prepare us for an eternal wedding banquet after the Lent of earthly life. 

There’s no dispensation needed to live Lent like this.  

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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