Will you be ‘packing your bags for a guilt trip?’ Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day collide this year (2024)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – This week, some folks will be pulled in opposite directions: The solemn observance of Ash Wednesday occurs on the same day as the fun and light-hearted Valentine’s Day.

That might put some folks in a slight moral quandary. The Rev. James Bretzke, who teaches moral theology at John Carroll University, offers a fun approach.

“Usually on Valentine’s Day I will give the kids a little chocolate heart - not overly expensive – but I’m not doing that on Wednesday, because the Catholics are supposed to be fasting on Ash Wednesday,” he said.

So he planned to give it to them Monday. This way, church rules are maintained, you can still fast, and no one is packing their bags for a guilt trip.

The chasm between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is wide. The former marks the beginning of a spiritual time, one of Christianity’s most important observances, a period to strive to become closer to God. Its origins are unwavering. It’s about self-discipline and reflection, and it remains a serious Christian tenet.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday with as many origin stories as different flavored chocolates in a box of assorted candies.

The last time they occurred on the same day was in 2018. But before that, the last time Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fell on the same day was 1945. Newspapers of the day didn’t cover either observance that much, considering most of the headlines focused on World War II. Previous dual happenings took place in 1923 and 1934, according to religionunplugged.com, with the next juxtaposition slated for 2029.

Bretzke’s teaching focus puts him in a perfect position to address the dilemma of the two days converging. As he said, the specific emphasis of moral theology makes one ask: “If you believe in God and if you believe in Christianity, what would be the ethical ramifications of that?”

“The key thing is Good Friday is the highest day for penance, for fasting and abstinence, and Ash Wednesday would be the second,” he said. (Good Friday is March 29.)

A point to remember is people often associate Lent with sacrifice, but you can be proactive instead.

“I think culturally speaking most people probably think we have to give something up,” Bretzke said, guessing correctly that chocolate, dessert and alcohol are popular examples. But a better, more pertinent theological undertaking would be a proactive one “because Lent is supposed to be preparation for Easter and renewal of our commitment to the Christian life. Being proactive rather than giving something up, doing something positive, would fit in better with the theology behind Lent.”

He said he was aware of some dioceses where parishioners asked, " ‘Can we get dispensation for the Ash Wednesday of service because it is Valentine’s Day?’ and the dioceses basically said no,” said Bretzke, who is in his fifth year of teaching at John Carroll and who previously taught at Boston College and other schools.

“Where Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coming at the same time is rare, less rare would be during Lent, on Fridays you’re supposed to abstain from meat. And March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – would come often on Fridays. And dioceses, whether it be a significant Irish population or maybe if St. Patrick was the patron of the diocese, the bishop then would usually give a dispensation (from abstaining from meat on Friday).”

For those looking ahead, St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday this year.

Other official religious observances have fallen on fun, unofficial days. In recent years, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has issued a statement regarding Good Friday falling on the Guardians’ home opener, traditionally a sellout.

The former calls for abstinence of meat. The latter calls for hot dogs. For the record, no dispensation was given.

And it’s no different for this week. The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland posted on its website the fasting and abstinence guidelines of Ash Wednesday apply for Valentine’s Day. No dispensation means no meat.

Ash Wednesday’s lineage is real, but Valentine’s Day has a bit of a nebulous past. Was there a St. Valentine?

“The answer to St. Valentine – yes, maybe,” Bretzke said.

As a story goes, he supposedly was a person who offered himself to take the place of a person condemned to work as a slave in Roman times, he said.

“That idea of offering yourself for another person, that’s why he is associated with Valentine’s.”

The day morphed into showing love to a person who is important to you, but over the years it became “repackaged” as a holiday. Grade-school kids give cards to each other, companies sell cards and candy, florists do brisk business and other commercial interests take hold.

Another origin story says Valentine’s Day is rooted in Lupercalia, a pagan festival once held in Rome in mid-February. Lupercalia – complete with pagan sacrifices – reportedly dates to 6th-century B.C. Shepherds worshipped the Roman god Lupercus, who was believed to protect their flocks against wolves and was considered a promoter of fertility among sheep.

We’ve come a long way.

References to Valentine’s Day are scattered throughout literature, including within Chaucer’s rhymes. Early printed cards date to the 1700s. Hallmark first offered them in 1913 and began producing them three years later. Now, approximately 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent, making it the second-largest holiday for greeting cards.

This year, the only thing left is to find a name to call the day. AshVal? Valenash?

In this week’s regular bulletin from St. Sebastian Church in Akron, The Rev. John Valencheck – tipping the cap to a parishioner’s phrase – might have identified the best one:

“Ashentine’s Day.”

Popular Lenten sacrifices

According to christianity.com, here are the 10 most common things to give up for lent:

1. Meat

2. Desserts and sweets

3. Alcohol

4. Smoking

5. Screen time

6. Gossiping

7. Excessive shopping

8. Caffeine

9. Luxury or extravagant spending

10. Personal comforts

Will you be ‘packing your bags for a guilt trip?’ Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day collide this year (1)

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I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. For my recent stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursdays. Twitter: @mbona30. My latest book, co-authored with Dan Murphy, is “Joe Thomas: Not Your Average Joe” by Gray & Co.

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Will you be ‘packing your bags for a guilt trip?’ Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day collide this year (2024)


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