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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 February 2024

What to do when a feast and a fast occur on the same day, asks Malcolm Guite

SINCE some feasts are moveable and others more constant in their orbit round the year, we sometimes have the liturgical equivalent of a planetary eclipse, when two feasts occur on the same day. Sometimes, one is sacred, the other secular, as was that time when Good Friday fell on 1 April, All Fools’ Day. That coincidence was, of course, a gift for all who wanted to preach on the folly of the cross, on the foolishness of God as wiser than the wisdom of men.

Usually, if two feasts occur on the same day, there is a simple solution: celebrate both! With feasting, the rule really is “The more the merrier.” But what happens when a feast and a fast coincide? Does the feast eclipse the fast or the fast the feast? We shall each have to decide before Wednesday; for, this year, Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day coincide. Should one eclipse the other?

It would be easy to argue that Ash Wednesday takes precedence: it is older, more settled, and certainly more central to the faith. It is an inflection point in the liturgical year, turning us with Christ towards the complete self-offering of the Passion. By comparison, veneration of Valentine, and certainly his association with romantic love, come rather late in the day — and, these days, Valentine is surely more embedded in the secular than the sacred. So, that would mean ash on the outside this Wednesday, and nothing on the inside. It would mean cancelling that Valentine’s dinner booking, burnt roses turned to ash, and the Valentine’s wine turned back into water.

But there’s another way to look at it. At the heart of Ash Wednesday is repentance, a turning and returning; a turning away from self, with its incessant demands, a turning towards love with its grace in giving and forgiving. Perhaps the remembrance and celebration of romantic love involves just such a turning from self to the other. Valentine himself was a martyr — martyred, among other causes, for encouraging the marriages that saved young Christians from conscription in the imperial army.

Whatever the case with Valentine himself, a day to remember love, to celebrate and renew it — so that even the banked embers of a long, settled, and comfortable love might show a little spark and flame — seems unequivocally a good thing.

Although eros is only one of “the four loves”, as C. S. Lewis called the four Greek words for love, and, although agape, the love that St Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, is the greatest of the four, yet eros has its place in keeping and kindling the others. In marriage, there is room not only for eros, but also for philia, deep friendship, and for storge, too: that comforting familiarity, that sense of home.

And, sometimes, by prayer and grace, these three lesser loves are transfigured and together become agape: the love that is “patient and kind, that keeps no score of wrongs, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things”.

So, on balance, I don’t think I’ll be cancelling the table that I’ve booked for myself and Maggie on St Valentine’s Day. After all, there’ll be plenty of Lent left for fasting.

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