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A question of love

Ash Wednesday Valentines Day

Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, Filipino Christians are faced with a dilemma today – one which very few of them will ever have faced in their lives before. In fact, only those born some time in the early 1930s will have experienced it; and the chances are it won’t be a readily recallable memory even for them. As it happened, there were other momentous events going on at the time.

The dilemma is that today is both Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent; a solemn 40-day Christian observance involving sacrifice, self-denial and fasting – and Valentine’s Day, a cheerful, light-hearted occasion devoted to romantic love, chocolates and flowers. They are, then, two auspicious events at entirely opposite ends of the emotional scale.

Consequently, this is less of a confluence and more of a clash; and for many it’ll boil down to a matter of choice. Or, more likely, it’ll be treated in compromise terms by exploiting the common theme of love – though that has its problems also.

When the Church talks of love it often refers to agape – “the love of God for man and of man for God”. Those celebrating Valentine’s Day, however, have more Earthly matters on their minds. For them it’s purely about romance; it’s a day for lovers – of one person expressing heartfelt feelings for another.

And yet, Valentines Day – always occurring on 14 February – is the day Christian churches venerate St Valentine, a 3rd century Roman saint about whom very little is known. For the Anglicans and the Lutherans it’s a feast day – and it used to be for the Catholics up until 1969. That year, his name was removed from the General Roman Calendar which fixes the dates for, among other things, saints’ feast days. Now, his name appears in the Roman Martyrology – a list of saints recognised by the Church – allowing liturgical veneration of him, but with a proviso.

If a saint’s feast day falls on the same day as some other “obligatory celebration”, or a Holy Day of Obligation – and certainly that’ll include Ash Wednesday – the Roman Church does not authorise the liturgical veneration of that saint on that day.

Thus for the Church – in the case of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church, one with a flock size just north of 85 million – Ash Wednesday is what today is about. Cupid, it will not be about.

But Filipinos love romance – and they love Valentines Day. Traditionally in the Philippines, it’s a day for weddings – sometimes, mass weddings. And today in Cebu City in the Central Visayas, 150 couples will be tying the knot under a scheme sponsored by the Pag-Ibig Fund, a government owned and run corporation administered by the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council.

Elsewhere, across the country, people of all ages will be exchanging cards, red roses and other gifts, indulging in Valentine’s Day meals and generally having a good time. Throughout the archipelago, restaurants and hotels will feature special Valentine’s Day menus; shopping malls will be plastered with hearts; flower shops and chocolate shops will do a roaring trade. Fasting and self-reflection will be among the furthest things from the minds of lovers shopping there and just hanging out.

Others, meanwhile, will be receiving the ashes on their foreheads; striking meat from their meals – even foregoing meals; Ash Wednesday is one of two days of fasting and abstinence decreed by the Church. The other is Good Friday. They’ll also be dispensing with personal indulgences, refraining from alcohol, for example; and reflecting on the start of Christ’s journey through into Holy Week and the Passion – his arrest, his trial, his crucifixion.

Indeed, it’s hard to image two more different influences surrounding today. On the one hand there’s the commercialism – retailers will be in overdrive across the country’s malls run by SM, Ayala, and Robinsons as they compete for one-day sales. After all, Valentine’s Day is a huge earner for the retail sector – after Christmas and Easter, it vies for third place with Halloween.

On the other hand, there’s the spiritual pull of Ash Wednesday – the call to abstain from material things; to put aside considerations of self and focus on Christ’s purpose during his 40 days in the desert. And this is where the convergence of these two events is most significant from the point of view of the Church. For in that desert, Christ was tempted. And he didn’t succumb.

The alignment of these events is rare. In fact, the last time it happened was on 14 February 1945 – 73 years ago. The Philippines then was still under Japanese occupation as WWII’s War in the Pacific blundered towards its brutal end. The Battle of Manila was just 11 days old and would run for a further 17 days. It would incorporate the Massacre of Manila in which an estimated 100,000 civilians died.

Of course, though there’s little romance in war, there would have been love-struck couples then as there are now. But in the atmosphere of war – and in light of the savagery going on across the Philippine capital at the time – the lighter side of romance would struggle for the oxygen it needed to express itself. And from a more practical angle, chocolates and flowers would have been in very short supply.

Somehow, in their own way, Filipinos will find a way of dealing with all this. But, as one dilemma closes, another opens. And this next one will come on Friday – the third day of Lent which collides with the first day of Chinese New Year.

If you think Valentine’s Day is a day of indulgence, compared to the first day of Chinese New Year it looks like a day of austerity. It is then, another culture clash with the Church – and to make matters worse it arrives on a Friday. During Lent, the faithful are encouraged to abstain from all meat on Fridays and certainly their should be no over indulgence where food is concerned.

But, for the Chinese – a quarter of the Philippine population, around 26 million people have Chinese blood – this day is all about having plenty. It’s the day when families get together and celebrate. And the centre piece of those celebrations is the family meal. Usually a large lavish one.

Traditionally, however, the Church has dealt with this matter pragmatically and made a special dispensation in the case Chinese Filipinos at Lunar New Year – and this year is no exception. Chinese Catholics have been exempted from fasting and abstinence on that day through a circular issued by the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, last month.

In it he gave them “dispensation from the Lenten discipline”, though urged them to “engage in other forms of penance, acts of mercy, and charity to the poor and those who suffer”. These acts of piety and charity, he said, are in keeping with the “penitent spirit” of the Lenten season.

It’s a sensible approach that always seems to have worked in the past. In the case of the figure whom courting couples have installed as their patron saint, however, there’s less room for manoeuvre.

Certainly the Philippine Catholic Church has had its problems with Valentine’s Day in the past – even when it didn’t fall in Lent. On 14 February 2011, for example, party-list group, Akbayan – to show its support for the Responsible Parenthood and Reproduction Health Act, which promotes artificial birth control and went into law the following year – distributed free condoms in Quezon City, Metro Manila.

It’s Valentine’s Day message was, “Love yourself. Love your partner. Be safe”. The Church was wholly opposed to this Act and fought tooth and nail to have it overturned. And so to the Church –against to any form of artificial birth control – giving away condoms in the name of love was nothing short of sacrilege.

Again, on Valentine’s Day 2015 – four days before the start of that year’s Lenten season – the country’s biggest condom maker, DTK Health, decided to hand out some 40,000 free condoms to members of the public. The Church countered by offering to exchange the condoms for candies and chocolates.

Whichever side of the fence you’re on, there’s no question that episodes like these are extremely difficult for the Church. And when they’re carried out in the name of a saint, they’re even more sensitive.

The problem, as usual, is the conflict between the corporeal and spiritual worlds. But somehow they have to live together; coexist in some form of harmony. And so, somewhere in scripture maybe there’s a clue to how Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday can be acknowledged together.

On Thursday, 29 March – Holy Thursday, the day after the end of Lent – Christians recall one of the most moving accounts from the Gospels; the Last Supper. And in that account – John 13:34 – Jesus offers a new commandment. This is what he said: “Love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you”.

Fasting and abstinence aside, few Filipino Christians, whether they’re celebrating Valentines Day or taking part in the ritual of Ash Wednesday, are likely to have any problem with that.

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