Eat, Pray, Love: An Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day Dilemma

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“Ash Wednesday has precedence, and the coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day would not lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial,” he wrote in a blog post on Monday.

“St. Valentine willingly bows to this Sacred Heart, for which even he lovingly gave his life 18 centuries ago,” Cardinal Dolan wrote, in a reference to the martyrdom of St. Valentine in the third century.

He called for celebrations in line with the day’s spirit. “Why don’t we do an act of charity for somebody else? Why don’t we do an act of penance for one another as a sign of our love?” he told reporters Monday..

Last year, when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Lenten Friday, when Catholics are asked to abstain from eating meat, Cardinal Dolan was a voice of leniency. Like at least 80 other bishops around the country, he issued a dispensation to permit New York Catholics to eat corned beef and cabbage, the traditional Irish dish.

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Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Ash Wednesday in 2013.Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Ash Wednesday is considered a holier day than a regular Friday in Lent, so no bishops have issued a dispensation this time. Still, it’s possible to find a more liberal outlook among the region’s clergy.

Just across the Hudson River, for example, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, said he sees no harm in marking both days at once.

The reason, Cardinal Tobin explained, is found in the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading from the Book of Matthew. Joy and religious obligation can, and in fact should, coexist.

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The Gospel reads in part: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.

“But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you.”

What does this mean?

“You can be happy and enjoy the day, and you certainly shouldn’t be dour, because then all the attention is on you, on your discomfort,” said Cardinal Tobin, who is known for his pastoral approach.

“Take your heartthrob to a small-plates place, because fasting in the Catholic Church doesn’t mean that you go without, or with just water,” he said. “It’s the kind of dilemma you might have if your grandmother’s birthday and Valentine’s Day fell on the same day. They are both values for you, so you conjugate them; you try to figure out how to do it.”

That doesn’t mean Catholics should give fasting short shrift, he added. Not only is it required, but it links believers to a worldwide community, and to the experience of those who don’t have enough to eat.

But there is a way to use spiritual love to deepen the love between couples. Before heading off to get those vegetarian tapas, “go to church first, and get some ashes, especially if the two of you are on the same spiritual wavelength,” Cardinal Tobin suggested. “And it might be another thing that unites you.”

Given this, it might not come as a surprise that Cardinal Tobin also doesn’t see a conflict between celebrating Easter and April Fool’s on the same day — within reason. That’s the next rare coincidence coming up on this year’s calendar, on April 1.

“The worst that could happen is that you hide someone’s Easter basket where they can’t find it, or give them diet eggs that have nothing inside,” Cardinal Tobin said, brainstorming some appropriate April Fool’s Easter gags. “Or diet chocolate,” he added. “Wouldn’t that be awful!”

Follow Sharon Otterman on Twitter: @sharonNYT

A version of this article appears in print on February 13, 2018, on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: Chocolates or Ashes? A Holiday Dilemma for Some. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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