This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 14th, commonly commemorated as Valentine’s Day. It’s going to be quite the cultural conundrum for Catholics. Most of America will be thinking romantic thoughts, taking a honey out on a dinner date or surprising her with a box of chocolates. For Catholics, it will be Ash Wednesday as usual: fasting, abstaining from meat, and for many, giving up chocolate!
Ash Wednesday takes precedence, though we might be tempted to just ignore it this year. Let me encourage you to embrace it. The smart thing to do, gentlemen, is to make your Valentine’s Day plans for Tuesday instead. Surprise your honey with dinner out on a not-so-busy night, or an extra fat Tuesday of chocolate and romance. Then you can feel smug while getting smudged, knowing you’ve got in both your loving and your Lenting.
There is a still deeper meaning here. We often think of Lent in terms of giving something up: we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we don’t eat meat on the Fridays of Lent, we say extra prayer or do works of service. Fundamentally, Lent is about love. Lent begins with God’s immense, intense love for us. God loved us enough to create us and surround us with a beautiful world. But He gives even more. Through Baptism and Confirmation God has entered into a Covenant of Love with His people. He promises to be totally faithful to us forever.
And we, on the other hand, cannot claim to have been totally faithful to God. Instead of receiving gratefully, we take more than our share of God’s gifts and tell others, “It’s mine!” We too often prefer things to people. Above all, like the prodigal son, we reject our Father himself because we want “our share of the inheritance.” We have not held up our end of the covenant. And should be ashamed. We show our shame by smearing ourselves with ashes, letting go of some nice things, and turning our hearts back to God. In spite of our infidelity, God remains faithful. His love waits patiently for us to leave the pigsty and start for home. What a celebration he throws for us; our small penance leads to a big party! God’s love is worth far more than meat and chocolates. However much you give up for Lent will be tiny in compared to your sins. But it really is the thought that counts.