Have you looked at your calendar lately? Have you noticed that, in 2024, the most dark and difficult annual day of self-examination and penitence falls, by some terrible misfortune, on the exact same day as Ash Wednesday?
I speak, of course, of that darkest, most difficult, most penitential of days, Valentine’s Day.
Ho ho! I joke. I like Valentine’s Day. It is fine. I, like most Americans, act normal about this holiday, and do not get weird about it. We definitely aren’t mad or upset because our annual Whitman’s sampler, dyed flower and Temu lingerie fest is being threatened by Actual Spoilsport, God. American Catholics would never! We know better, and we always act normal!
I joke again. In fact, there is a flurry of consternation about how we are supposed to celebrate Valentine’s Day without letting it overshadow the beginning of Lent.
The answer is, of course, you can’t, silly. Ash Wednesday is way more important than Valentine’s Day, so it gets first dibs on your time. If Valentine’s Day is important to you or to the person you love, there’s nothing wrong with that! You just move it, and celebrate it some other day. This is just what it’s like being an adult: Sometimes things just don’t work out, and you have to be flexible.
But that doesn’t mean some people aren’t going to get a little too flexible. Call it the new evangelization or call it an obsession, but I can’t stop thinking about something that happened a few weeks ago at Mass.
Our family was plowing through a combination of viruses and snowstorms and broken vehicles (even more broken than usual), and so we planned to do something we don’t ordinarily do: We went to the late Mass. Which we generally avoid, because while the Mass is the Mass, and that means it’s always good, at this particular Mass, see, they have this tambourine, and … listen, I’m a reformed character, and I try really hard not to make fun of people who are doing their best. So all I am going to say is that, for the Fishers to get up early to avoid it every week, it has to be pretty rough.
And it was rough. It was Epiphany, and as we processed reverently back to our pews to meditate on the unfathomable gift of the Eucharist we had just received, a very specific chord progression floated down from the choir loft. It sounded familiar, evocative. One might even call it … a secret chord? But no, it couldn’t be.
Yes, it was. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” that famous song that starts out being about adultery and ends up being just about sex in general. You know, for Communion! But it’s OK, because they changed the words to be about Christmas! Which made it 10,000 times worse, somehow. And that is why Epiphany of 2024 marks the day the kneeler of the pew next to the St. Joseph window at our local church lost at least one screw, because it got shaken so violently under the effort of my kids not trying to burst out laughing. Hallelujah, indeed.
The reason I’m telling you about this is because this is what happens. This is what happens when you try to take something secular that has merits of its own (perhaps — I think Leonard Cohen is basically a novelty act, but you can fight me on that later) and, rather than just letting it be what it is, you try to stretch it and deform it and scrunch it out of shape until it becomes a Catholic thing. What happens is, it’s terrible. And you look silly. And you have to replace half the screws on the kneelers, when you know perfectly well that money should be going to do something about the plumbing situation in the church basement.
I started out trying to write something funny about how to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday at the same time. I wrote about it last time it happened, and I’ve seen some pretty funny updated memes this year: The dark, ashy hearts on the foreheads of the faithful, the Ryan Gosling meme (“Hey girl … I’d like to take you out for a small meal that, when combined with another small meal, doesn’t exceed your large meal”), and the simple elegance of a candy conversation heart that says in pink letters, “THOU ART DUST.”
But truly, you can’t express it better than Father Joe Tonos did last time this fake conundrum came up. He told a newspaper back in 2018, “The ‘official’ statement is ‘Tell people to go out on Mardi Gras for Valentine’s.’ … To be honest, I’m not telling anyone to do anything. It’s Ash freakin’ Wednesday. You know what to do.”
And you really do. Fast. Pray. Give alms. Make jokes. But don’t be a giant baby about it. In the past, Catholics got appendages torn off and eyes gouged out for their faith. All we have to do is make sure we finish up our truffles before midnight on the 13th. We can do this! Hallelujah.
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Simcha Fisher is an award-winning columnist who regularly contributes to America Magazine, Parable Magazine, and The Catholic Weekly.