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By Deacon Roger Carr-Jones, Marriage and Family Life Coordinator for the Diocese of Westminster

When my son was in his last year as a chorister his sister, who was in her sixth-form, arranged for all her friends to send him a Valentine Day card. Whilst his kudos might have been raised this was but a nebulous expression of what love is. A bit like blowing bubbles, fun at the time and then it all evaporates.

Trying to balance our desire to mark St Valentine’s Day and stay faithful to the rigors of Ash Wednesday might seem impossible unless you begin to think of both in the context of what love means. In English the word ‘love’ tends to get overused, so that we lose sight its nuances and depth. St Valentine’s Day is primarily a secular celebration, which is trapped in the romantic expression of love rather than enjoying all its complex flavours. Ash Wednesday is the invitation to spend 40 days with the one who teaches us that real love comes at a cost, and married love takes us into a new landscape. Rather than simply celebrating romantic love, we could use Ash Wednesday as the opportunity to reflect on the complexity of the love we have tasted and experienced on our married journey.

St Valentine’s Day tends to get stuck in the dating phase, where we primarily rely on ourselves, our focus exclusive and inwards. Seeing Ash Wednesday as a symbol of the source of love reminds us how, in marriage, our focus learns to grows outwards to embrace, not only children, but the wider world. We learn to recognise how God shares our journey and adds flavour to our love. The one thing that we can continually learn in marriage is that compromising opens up new opportunities to grow in mutual love. We lose nothing. In putting the obligations of Ash Wednesday first, it is a bit like learning to put our spouse before our own needs. We grow.

Last year on St Valentine’s Day my wife and I were getting ready for a special dinner, when we received a call from a Care Line to say that my mother-in-law had fallen. Our expectations of a romantic dinner gave way to responding to address this situation. The subsequent dry sandwich and plastic cup of water in a hospital corridor might not have been a romantic meal, but it was where we were called to be. Romantic love would have felt a tremor of irritation, whereas this mature expression of love opened unexpected avenues and encounters. This year I had to explain to my wife that I had not arranged for Lent to start on 14th February to avoid going out!

Romantic love can only take us so far in a relationship, whereas the decision to love changes us. This highlights the difference between falling in love and being in love. Falling in love and making the decision to love come what may, are profoundly different. Falling in love lies outside our control. In one sense it is quite irrational and connected to the emotions, as we cannot choose to fall in love, it just happens. Deciding to love, though, is the challenge of a maturing relationship reflected through the vocation of marriage. This love asks the couple to be self-sacrificing and navigating the complex landscape of love, which is filled with joys, sorrows, opportunities and challenges. It is a rich feast. In the wilderness Jesus faces down the devil and in giving way to each other we face down the temptation of a selfish expression of love.

Ash Wednesday helps us to move away from being trapped in the idealised view of romance now associated with St Valentine’s Day, to notice the ways in which we truly love. I often recommend reading The Five Love Languages, written by the relationship expert Gary Chapman. In this transformational book, he notes that people express and receive love in five different ways, called love languages: quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. All of these are revealed in their true depth by Jesus, who now awaits us in the wilderness.

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