As I write this, Love is on my mind. Not some specific someone love – although that would be nice – but Love as an ideal and as a reality. I guess the near proximity of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday this year got this train of thought going. And when thinking about love I can’t help being a little frustrated by how pedestrian my understanding of the concept frequently is. The fault lies in the fact that our English language is so imprecise; we use the same word “love” to refer to the pleasurable/enjoyable to the sentimental/romantic to the awesome divine. I can actually say in the same conversation that I love chocolate, I love my children and that God loves me.
Churchy-types have long resorted to the Greek language to try to clarify things. C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book called The Four Loves where he explores the different types of love expressed in that language. So we have storge for affectionate love, philia for brotherly love or the love of friends, eros for romantic love and agape for unconditional or Godly love. Of course Lewis also explores how these types of loves are expressed in wholesome and unwholesome ways and spends time differentiating between love based on need, love offered as gift and love resulting from appreciation.
For me, this questions of understanding love matters because it is so central to our understanding of both God and what it means to be a Christian. St. John goes so far as to say in his first letter that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
Taking a cue from Mr. Lewis we need to be deliberately aware that our ability to love is a reflection of God’s love, is in fact, part of the way that we are created in God’s image. We accept that we cannot love with the perfection of agape – that is God’s love – but we know that we are called to strive toward that. When we love one another in familial, friendly or romantic ways, we are to be always seeking to let that love show glimmers of the higher, truer love that is known in God.
So as we enjoy the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day and the many types of human love we commemorate on that day, let us also be mindful of the inexpressible love that God has for us as shown to us in Christ. That love tells us that while we were yet separated from God, strangers as it were, Christ died for us.
As this month unfolds, may we be given grace to see the ash crosses we are marked with to begin our Lenten journey as God’s Valentine to us, his beloved.
The Rev. Stacey Fussell, Rector of Church of the Ascension in Bradford