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Valentine's and Ash Wednesday convergence challenges religious leaders

Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg has already hung a banner advertising its  Ash Wednesday services -- "Get your Ash On!" The pastor views the Valentine's Day-Ash Wednesday convergence as a great opportunity to preach about God's love. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg has already hung a banner advertising its Ash Wednesday services -- "Get your Ash On!" The pastor views the Valentine's Day-Ash Wednesday convergence as a great opportunity to preach about God's love. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Feb. 12, 2018

Ash Wednesday, which begins the most sacred season of the church year for most Christians, will fall on Valentine's Day.

The last time that happened was 1945.

And while Tampa Bay religious leaders agree that Ash Wednesday — the start of the 40-day penitential period of Lent — should be one of reverence, they offer varying perspectives on how to handle its rare convergence with a day typically marked with exuberant expressions of secular love.

The Rev. Leonard Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa doesn't equivocate about which day takes precedence.

"If Halloween fell on Dec. 25, we would celebrate Christmas, not Halloween," he said. "Ash Wednesday is such an important day in the life of the church, it trumps anything else."

Plazewski has said as much to his congregation.

"Unless you are planning a simple meatless meal with no dessert or alcohol, I suggest you pick a different day for Valentine's," he told them at a recent Mass.

As for those ubiquitous Valentine's Day cards and candy that proliferate classrooms, there will be none of that at Christ the King school on Feb. 14.

"We let our teachers know and let parents know that we're going to do it on Tuesday," Plazewski said.

His announcement is in keeping with a statement issued by Bishop Gregory Parkes, head of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which includes the five-county Tampa Bay area. Parkes said the statement to priests was in response to questions they received from parishioners concerning this year's Ash Wednesday obligations.

Ash Wednesday is a special and sacred day, the bishop said during an interview.

"For us Catholics, it's also a day of fasting and a day of abstinence from meat as we enter into the season of Lent, which is a season of preparation and penance to prepare ourselves for Easter," he said.

"The guidance I've given to those who have inquired is that we should observe Ash Wednesday and that Valentine's Day, that celebration of the gift of love for one another, could be celebrated another day, such as Fat Tuesday, or over the weekend before, or after."

Catholics believe that St. Valentine was martyred, he said, sacrificing his life for his faith.

"Occasionally, we are called to make a sacrifice for our faith, as well," Parkes said.

The key Ash Wednesday ritual involves the imposition of ashes on the forehead in the shape of the cross, accompanied with words such as, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return."

For the Episcopal church, Ash Wednesday is also a fast day, but it should not be regarded as completely solemn, said the Rev. Canon Michael Durning of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, which includes the Tampa Bay area.

That philosophy is reflected in the church's prayer for Ash Wednesday, which is "hopeful in the power that God has come to restore us and reconcile us to one another," Durning said. "You can see a commonality between that and Valentine's Day. God is a God of love, and that's where they would coincide."

As an illustration, he spoke of a planned Ash Wednesday retreat by St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School in Coral Gables that will be held at the diocese's Dayspring conference center in Parrish.

"I would bet there will be heart-shaped candy and Valentine's Day cards," Durning said. "I don't see any harm in that. You certainly don't want to convey the message that Ash Wednesday is about feeling bad. It's a day of introspection and that ultimate feeling of hope."

And love, say several Tampa Bay pastors.

At Christ United Methodist Church in downtown St. Petersburg, a banner invites passers-by to "Get Your 'Ash' On!"

"Ash Wednesday, certainly for Methodists, as for many Christians, is a time of prayerful reflection before Easter. … It's a time to focus on God's great love in sending Christ to die and transform our lives," said the Rev. Jacqueline Jones-Smith.

"I think that it is just wonderful that Ash Wednesday will fall on Valentine's Day. One love is secular and one love is spiritual. I want folks to focus on God's love. You can have dinner with the one you love, but you can also come to service and celebrate God's great love."

The Rev. William Stenke of Lutheran Church of the Cross in St. Petersburg will offer ashes-to-go to parents as they drop their children off at the church's day school.

"On Ash Wednesday specifically, we are marked with ashes in the shape of a cross to remind us of God's love, despite our sin and imperfection," said Stenke, who will not tell his congregation to give up Valentine's Day celebrations.

"Instead, I will ask them to look at ways to add on to their tradition and to see a way that when we express love to others, it's not just our love we express, but God's love for them."

It would be "a missed opportunity" not to acknowledge that the two days coincide this year, said the Rev. Adrienne Hymes, chaplain and director at St. Anselm's Episcopal Chapel Center at the University of South Florida.

"Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul and with all of our mind. And we are to love our neighbors as ourselves," said Hymes, who is starting a new church in Wesley Chapel. "So Valentine's Day this year serves as a wonderful bridge between the sacred and the secular."

This year's calendar offers another quirk. Easter falls on April 1.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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