February 2024

It won’t have escaped many of us that this year, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. This may feel like an uncomfortable union.

Whilst we know that Valentine’s Day is Saint Valentine’s Day, the commercial reality of this occasion means that it has become a day of heart-shaped balloons and chocolates, red roses and looking your best for that romantic meal for two. This doesn’t sit easily with the sombre, penitential tone of Ash Wednesday when flowers are removed from our churches, and we are brought face to face with our imperfections; our daily ability to turn from God. As a gritty cross of ash is marked on our forehead we are told.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

This stark, deeply humbling, yet powerful moment sets the tone for the season of Lent when we are called to step into the wilderness with Christ and therefore into a time of prayer, self-reflection, repentance and self-denial. Yet, nothing about Ash Wednesday or Lent is about dwelling in self-loathing or indeed an unforgiveness of ourselves for the times when we have turned from God. On the contrary, it is a time when we are re-directed and re-centred on our absolute need for God – for God’s forgiveness, for God’s grace, for God’s saving love made know to us through Jesus.

Maybe then Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are not poles apart after all. For it is in the wilderness of Lent, and indeed in the events of Holy Week that follow, that we see face to face the depths of God’s love. A love that isn’t expressed in fine dining or red roses, but the bread and wine of the Last Supper, the blood of Christ shed on the cross and the joy of the open tomb on Easter morning.

Bishop Stephen

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