Feb. 14: A day for fasting or feasting?

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News
February 03. 2018 9:32PM

The Lambert family of Kingston, from left, Megan, Laura, Eric and Mary. The Lamberts suggest giving loved ones attention this year on Valentine's Day, which coincides with Ash Wednesday. (Courtesy photo)

This year, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and prayerful reflection that marks the beginning of Lent, coincides with Valentine's Day, a secular celebration of love marked with fancy dinners and chocolate.

What's a faithful romantic to do?

Improvise.

St. Francis School in Litchfield is holding its Valentine parties this Friday, Feb. 9. In Derry, St. Thomas Aquinas School will have its "Sweets for Sweeties" celebration on Tuesday, Feb. 13.

The last time Ash Wednesday fell on Feb. 14 was in 1945, according to timeanddate.com. It will happen again in 2024 and 2029.

Abbot Matthew Leavy, O.S.B., at Saint Anselm College says the convergence of Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday is cause for celebration, not consternation. "I think it's a happy convergence," he said.

Valentine's Day, Leavy said, celebrates romantic love. "It's also ... a challenge to people to express that love in some way to those whom they love: flowers or cards or candy or whatever."

Meanwhile, he said, the purpose of Lent "is that we walk the talk of love, so that we can place others ahead of ourselves and that we can exercise mercy."

So this year on Ash Wednesday, he suggests, "imagine you are receiving a heart on your forehead."

It can be a reminder "to become a better version of ourselves, in terms of our active practice of loving other people," he said. "And if we keep that as a theme for those 40 days of Lent, we could change the world."

Lindsay Elitharp, marketing manager for the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said she's noticed fewer special events being promoted on Feb. 14 this year. Some venues are planning Valentine-themed events the weekend before instead, she said.

Colleen Lang is faith formation coordinator at St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester. She suggested that parents give their children Valentine treats the day before instead of on Ash Wednesday.

But Lent "is more than just giving up chocolate," she said. "We try to promote that Lent is a time for spiritual renewal and for reconciliation and penance."

With youngsters in her parish, she said, "Instead of giving something up, I encourage them to add something positive." For instance, she suggests "fasting from email, text messaging or both for a day," or "paying attention to someone you were tempted to brush aside."

And adults and children alike could give up gossip, she said. "You can make a life change during Lent that carries through after Lent," she said.

Kristen Sweet is the mother of a fourth-grader at St. Francis School. She said a lot of children give up candy for Lent so the adults decided it was better to celebrate early. "We just thought doing it the day before wouldn't really be that fair," she said.

Her family will probably have a Valentine's dinner the night before, on Mardi Gras, instead of on the 14th, Sweet said. But in her house, Ash Wednesday is more important, she said.

"It's the start of Lent, a very serious and sober time of reflection," she said.

Eric Lambert of Kingston is the deacon at St. Michael Church in Exeter; he and his wife Laura run a parish program called "Divine Dinner Date." Last year, 62 couples attended Friday night catered dinners and conversations afterward; this year, 36 couples are participating.

The program is about "putting the focus back on the love and the attention that we give one another," Laura Lambert said.

And that's what she suggests couples do this year for Valentine's Day/Ash Wednesday: Plan a modest dinner at home "and spend that time without any distractions, really showing love for one another in the form of attention and time and meaningful conversation, and a little sharing of yourself."

"It's an invitation to do it a little different this year," she said. "I think we crave love in the form of attention much more than we do in the form of chocolate."

The Rev. Philip Pacheco is pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Derry. He moved the regular 6 p.m. Mass this Sunday to 4:30 p.m. because of the Super Bowl.

In the past, evening church attendance when the Patriots are in the Super Bowl has been "dismal," he said. "So this year, I said I know it might look bad, but I'd rather have people, you know, come."

Ash Wednesday can't be moved. The western church sets the date for Easter on the Sunday after the first day of spring that falls after the full moon, Pacheco explained, and Ash Wednesday is based on that.

Pacheco suggests celebrating Valentine's Day the weekend before. His parish school is having its annual celebration on Feb. 13.

But he agreed the faithful need to go "beyond the letter of the law" to truly experience Lent.

"It's really about discovering your inner self," he said. "I would say not to look at it as a negative, or something we cannot do, but something that will help us grow or make us better."

Here's something many Catholics may not realize: Sundays in Lent are not prescribed days of fasting and abstinence, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That's how you end up with 40 days of Lent.

"Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience," the USCCB website explains.

But skipping Sundays feels like cheating, said Lang. "If you're giving up gossip, it seems like if you spend your Sunday doing that, you better go to confession on Monday," she said.

Abbot Leavy's suggestion for celebrating Valentine's Day on Ash Wednesday?

"Pick the five people that mean the most to you and call them, email them, text them ... whatever you've got to do, and express that concretely," he said.

"Just so that the other person gets the message you're thinking of them, you appreciate them, you love them and you're grateful for them."

swickham@unionleader.com


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