Maybe Lent Should Start With Valentine’s Day Every Year

By John Zmirak Published on February 15, 2018

Back in 2005 I published a light-hearted guide to the Church’s liturgical year called The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living. It combined solid doctrine with quirky folklore, arcane historical details and fabulous legends of saints, all infused with edgy humor. Its goal? As Zenit News reported:

Zmirak has an unusual take on what undermined the faith of Catholics in America. “It wasn’t eroded by earnest atheists and intellectual attacks,” he states. “What broke down ordinary people was a thousand clever comedic skits.”

So George Carlin and Saturday Night Live’s Father Guido Sarducci are responsible for the rise of the “cafeteria Catholics?” Zmirak says yes. “If you get people laughing, whatever your message is, it slides in unnoticed under the door.”

And thus Zmirak found his vocation. He thought that if humor could be used against the Church, then it could be used for it.

Catholic Mating Identification Day

Anyway, that was my excuse for a book that proposed marking St. Patrick’s Day with a “Potato Famine Party,” and the Feast of the Circumcision with sausage platters and Bloody Marys. But this year’s coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday is something even I could not have foreseen. Or did I? Here’s a selection from the book’s entry for the first day of Lent:

To mark the onset of penance, the Church distributes ashes to Catholics, which are rubbed on the forehead with the timeless warning “Remember, man, that thou art dust — and unto dust thou shalt return.” This ceremony is so vivid that it has the power to draw back people to church who almost never otherwise attend. (So they like free samples — what’s wrong with that? See you on Palm Sunday!)

Our favorite Ash Wednesday anecdote concerns an old parish of ours near Grand Central that had a fire — and hence an abundance of ashes, but no place to hand them out. So the priests put on their stoles and stood in the main concourse of Grand Central Station — as fearless as Hare Krishnas in an airport — and smudged the foreheads of anyone who stopped by. This sort of “drive-through” Ash Wednesday service proved much more popular than any actual liturgies that day, and was soon discontinued. But it shows the enduring  power this public sign of penance, which serves to mark one’s intention to lead a truly penitent Lent.

It’s also a handy way for single Catholics to spot each other and meet. For one day a year, those cute interns you’ve been eyeing in the elevator, that distinguished executive who doesn’t have a wedding ring, the pink-faced Polish waitress or Irish construction worker, walks around all day with a sticker on his or her head which says “Marriage Material.” We know that there isn’t the same opprobrium attached to mixed marriages as there used to be; you no longer have to hold the wedding ceremony in the rectory.

But there is still something powerfully appealing about finding someone who shares your deepest beliefs about the world, who speaks in the same vocabulary of faith — and feels guilty about all the same things. It clears away any number of potential areas of conflict — such as which religious services you’re going to attend (or skip and feel bad about) on Sundays, and to which sort of sternly regimented school (or half-a**ed afternoon CCD program) you’re going to send your kids.

So if you’re a single Catholic, take full advantage of the solemn fast we like to call “Mating Identification Day” by making a point of meeting those unhitched papists you’ve been ogling all year.

I’ve seen countless articles this year warning Christians not to let the romance of Valentine’s interfere with Ash Wednesday. Some helpfully remind folks that Valentine was a martyr, who was clubbed to death for his faith. Those Romans who sent him to Jesus had no idea that the day of his death (hence his feast day, his “birthday” in heaven) was also, in faraway Britain, the time when birds would pair off to mate. So medieval lovers would send each other notes dated with Valentine’s feast day.

The Fruit of Eros Is … People!

But I see something deeper here. How fitting is it that this year we start Lent on a day that the secular culture links with Eros. Now, Eros isn’t the highest love, as C.S. Lewis notes. That honor’s reserved to Agape, the self-emptying love that Jesus showed on the cross.

Still Eros is love. Done right, it pulls us out of ourselves. It’s based in the body, so it uses sensual longings to spur us on. But if we follow its natural course, it quickly moves past the mere satisfaction of appetite. Really loving another person, from root to branch, won’t let us settle for simply plucking the flowers of sexual pleasure. We have to nurture the whole plant or it will die. And we must welcome the fruit, in the form of children.

Please Support The Stream: Equipping Christians to Think Clearly About the Political, Economic, and Moral Issues of Our Day.

We Don’t Want to Step Offstage

And here’s where Lent comes in. Since Adam’s fall, the call to be fruitful and multiply has taken on a darker meaning. With death in the world, we are not simply reproducing. We are replacing ourselves. Aware that we “are dust, and unto dust” we shall return, we empty ourselves in caring for children. We build homes, plant trees, and nourish a sane social order for their sake, and their children’s.

Since Adam’s fall, the call to be fruitful and multiply has taken on a darker meaning. With death in the world, we are not simply reproducing. We are replacing ourselves.

A healthy embrace of Eros includes a keen awareness of death. We must breed, baptize, and care for those precious little feet that will someday fill our shoes — when we are pushing up daisies.

No wonder a culture that dreads death, quails at suffering, and dreams of extending life for endless geriatric centuries, also scoffs at children. Those fruits of our pleasure and passion are little mementos of the mortuary. Failing faith, we’ll pour the time, tears and treasure that they deserve into decorating the solitary confinement cell we call the postmodern Self. 

React to This Article

What do you think of our coverage in this article? We value your feedback as we continue to grow.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Like the article? Share it with your friends! And use our social media pages to join or start the conversation! Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Parler, Instagram, MeWe and Gab.

Life and Godliness
E.W. Jackson
More from The Stream
Connect with Us