Celebrating St. Valentine's Day!

Just a few days ago, as Christ’s followers, we began the Lenten journey. Receiving ashes on our forehead we recalled that ‘we are dust and to dust we will return’. A certain sombreness seemed to descend upon us as we enter into the privileged desert time to walk the Exodus journey. However it was almost as if our liturgical journey was interrupted and we  seemed to be surrounded  by hearts, flowers, roses and the apparent commercialism that accompanies St. Valentine’s Day.
I recalled one of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s phrases from one of the Angelus’: "Every human being is loved by God the Father. No one need feel forgotten, for every name is written in the Lord’s loving heart."

Valentine’s  Day can be a hard time for some people who feel alone or have been hurt because of relationships or are afraid to open their hearts to love and trust someone. It can also be an awkward feastday for many. Single people often feel isolated. People in relationships feel obliged to show their affection for their significant others in a way that may seem totally manufactured. Valentine’s Day is considered one of the most polarizing holidays in the year. You are either a complete believer in what Valentine’s Day has come to mean, a celebration of love, or else you are sick and tired of the marketing frenzy that surrounds the event.However, love does makes life beautiful, at any age. Whether it’s for the first time or the 100th, expressing your love is the best way to light up someone’s day, especially when they don’t expect it!

So are we just buying into the whole commercialism of Valentine’s Day (Saint Valentine’s Day, to be precise!)? On the 14th of February 2015, the same Pope Francis met with 20,000 engaged couples in St. Peter’s Square. In his address, he encouraged couples to have the courage to make lasting choices, which can be challenging in today's ‘through-away culture.’ By spreading the love of God, we want to remind people that they are infinitely and unconditionally loved by God, not just on Valentine’s Day but always. It is also an invitation to engage in relationships which are healthy, holy and happy, seen in the optic of God’s divine project for each one of us. Relationships which are wholesome, life-giving and life-receiving. To be leaven in this same ‘through-away culture’ is not easy as we discover. Love is often distorted and manipulative because it is appears to be about one’s self and not the other. Jesus must be at the centre of every relationship, whether you are single, married, priest or a religious. Love must be open to life.

Unconditional love grows by giving. The love we give away is the only love we keep. The only way to retain love is to give it away. However love hurts.  I remember somebody before asking me: ‘are you willing to bleed for Jesus?’. It sounds stronger than: ‘are you willing to suffer?’. Are we able to love till it hurts? I am reminded of a video I saw at a Youth 2000 retreat in Shankill a few years ago (thanks Fr. Shane Crombie!) which set scenes of The Passion (on the life of Jesus) to Leona Lewis’s ‘Bleeding Love’ song (note I have linked it but some of the scenes are strong but this is the reality of the Cross and how much the Father loves us).

Often we can romanticize love too much. The abrasions of love have inspired many a great writer. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen, writers have at some time or the other dwelt upon the anguish called love.The reality is love hurts! Remember St. Valentine was a martyr! Out of love for Christ whom he refused to deny, Valentine was beheaded. Whilst we may be not be martyred for our faith, discipleship asks of us to die unto ourself and live for another. It requires that we bleed.  True love is selfless and unconditional. True love knows no boundaries, it is not judgmental, it is kind. It is enough to look at St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 to see the kind of love we are called to. Those of you from my generation might remember the song from the Backstreet Boys:"I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you do, as long as you love me." We all carry the deep desire to be loved. Unconditional love only gives, but does not take anything in return. Essentially, everything proceeds from Love and tends towards Love. God’s gratuitous love is made known to us through the proclamation of the Gospel, through the sacraments, through each other. If we welcome these with faith, we receive the first and indispensable contact with the Divine, capable of making us “fall in love with Love”, and then we dwell within this Love, we grow in it and we joyfully communicate it to others.

 How can we ‘stay in love’? For me, one of the best Valentine gifts I had today was the possibility to go for Adoration and sit with Jesus! It gives that quiet space to keep falling in love, to work through the difficulties, to be aware of how marred my human love can be, to cultivate the sense of being loved because this is something which we can easily forget.Like every relationship, our relationship with the Lord needs to be constantly nourished, worked at, dialogued through. In the novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, we remember the young girl Liesel has difficulty in believing in love and more so, that she was loved. Interesting enough, the novel is narrated by Death who doesn’t do much to encourage her in believing the contrary. In fact we read, “ no matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment.”It is true- often in life we cannot recognize when love begins but we definitely know when it ends. We focus on how we have been disappointed and we are unable to heal. We see how sin can warp innocent love and turn agape to eros. However forgiveness is an intrinsic part of unconditional love. When you love someone deeply, you find the heart to forgive. You can overlook the blemishes because your love overcomes the flaws. Martin Luther King Jr. beautifully put it in words when he said, "He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love." Unconditional love never imposes because the more we try to twist them to fit our own image, the more we end up loving the reflection of ourselves we find in them. In reality, the only image we should see in them is that of Christ, even if the image is a work in progress, we respect the efforts and uphill struggle that each person makes in striving for holiness.

I know I have quoted this on other occasions but it never ceases to be old for me and it is fitting to end with this: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,  what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends,
 what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart,and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.(Pedro Arrupe).

 Well done if you made it to the end...sorry it was a bit longer than usual! Blessings for the First Sunday of Lent!