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You don’t want me to cut your toast with a little heart cookie cutter, do you?” I ask. As expected, my husband declines. It’s a little strange to plan Valentine’s Day together when the holiday falls on Ash Wednesday. This year, we’re letting the couples’ celebration float to Mardi Gras, but on the day of penance itself, there will be a little extra space between us. The collision of feast and fast makes me reflect a little on marital complementarity across the changing seasons of our lives.

There are five people in our house, but Alexi is the only one fasting. Our girls (four and two) are too little, and, with their little brother growing in my belly, I need to eat for the sake of his strength and mine. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday last collided in 2018. That was also the last year I was able to fully participate in the fast alongside my husband. 

From 2019 on, I’ve either been recovering from miscarriage, pregnant, or breastfeeding. I’m dispensed from the requirements for physical penances, because it wouldn’t be an act of justice to my body or the children I care for. In these seasons, I appreciate the words St. Francis de Sales wrote to one of his spiritual daughters, who was keeping up her fasts while pregnant. “Nourish without scruple your body,” de Sales wrote to her, “in consideration of that which you bear.” Fidelity to God’s invitation to penance didn’t require her to conform to the external fast, but to recognize and offer up the natural hardships of her maternity. “You will not lack for mortifications of the heart,” de Sales wrote, “which is the only holocaust God desires from you.” 

Our external seasons of explicit fasting are an interruption of our routine and our self-will, but they aren’t meant to conclude cleanly when the fasting day is done. Liturgical fasts draw our attention to the unscheduled, unshared, often unchosen privations that shape our lives, and which can be penances when we join them to God’s sacrifice. 

So, even on Mardi Gras, when we make a two-person skillet cookie once our girls are asleep, I feel split between the prelude to Lent and the consummation of Good Friday. There’s no feasting that wholly occludes the sense that my body is given for the little boy resting below my heart, just as Christ’s body is given for me. Then, on Ash Wednesday, my husband and I change places. 

Throughout pregnancy, I depend deeply on Alexi. My nausea, my fatigue, my increasing difficulty reaching the bottom of the laundry machine mean that more and more of my work around the home shifts onto his shoulders. Sometimes it’s an explicit agreement, but more often, I doze off in the early evening and awake to find he’s done what were once my chores, carrying the recycling out to the curb in the rain. 

On Ash Wednesday, he is the one who weakens his body for the sake of our family, fasting both from food, and from the consolations of a shared, corporate penance. Every other day, I depend more on him as I go through the privations of pregnancy, but on a fasting day, he offers his body for our family differently, as the spiritual head. It’s me who has (comparatively) more energy, and I look for ways to apply it in his place. 

We don’t quite get to meet in either feast or fast. Marriage has meant less time spent in synchrony, and more time following each other through a dance. If we try to mirror each other too exactly, we aren’t able to move together, shifting weight and sharing burdens as our family grows. The whole liturgical year, and our repeated, shared progress through the cycle of sorrow and salvation, is marked by the rising and ebbing feast and fasting seasons. Even when the Church's calendar brings us into sync, our sexed differences and complementary roles mean we celebrate or sacrifice together but not identically. 

Our muted Valentine’s Day and our unshared fasting day won’t be our most memorable, and it certainly won’t be our most photogenic. But I’m grateful for these moments when feast and fast lie so closely alongside each other. We’ll see them collide again in 2029, and then never again in our lifetimes. It’s too soon to know whether either or both of us will be able to fast for the family in five years’ time or whether a different, longer penance will have presented itself. But these three synchronies of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day offer the pattern for our marriage in miniature—love expressed through mutual dependence, whatever the day may bring. 

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option

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Image by Dr Jean Fortunet licensed by Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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