Each year, sometimes even before the Christmas decorations have been packed away, we start to see flashes of bright red and pink showing up in store windows. Images of hearts, kisses and cupids begin to appear on t.v., along with a plethora of jewelry commercials, all reminding us that St. Valentine’s Day is approaching.
When I ask the parents at my parish if they have any plans for celebrating St. Valentine’s Day, I usually get quite a few eye rolls and comments about how the greeting card industry conspires around this holiday to guilt people into buying more stuff, all “in the name of love.” While I’m not denying that there are certainly many prompts from the media urging us to spend, I also believe that St. Valentine’s Day does, in fact, offer us a great opportunity to show the people around us affection, and even to think a little more deeply about what is meant by this word: love.
Tradition holds that the original St. Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome, who was imprisoned under Emperor Claudius II for performing the sacraments. While he was in jail, Valentine befriended the daughter of the jailer. As legend has it, the entire family of the jailer ended up converting to Christianity, further angering the emperor. Before his execution on February 14, St. Valentine sent a small note to the young girl, signing it “Remember me, from your Valentine.”
Valentine was a fairly popular name in the early days of the church, and there are records of other priests named Valentine who were also put to death for their faith, during the reign of Emperor Claudius. So, the love displayed by these first Valentines was not romantic love, that came in later, but a deep and abiding love for Christ, a love they followed to their deaths. This is the same type of love referred to in scripture and displayed by Jesus himself, the self-emptying, sacrificial love of God to which we are each called.
The first letter to the Corinthians explains love more fully when it says:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
5 it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
If we read each of these verses slowly, one at a time, it's easy to come to one conclusion - it’s hard to be truly loving. In fact, the love described here pretty much goes against most of our natural inclinations. Trying to live this type of radical, other-centered love can be overwhelming and intimidating, if not just impossible. That’s where St. Valentine’s Day celebrations can come to our help.
Before February 14 arrives, take a few moments to think about the people around you, especially those whom you love. What is one, small thing you can do or say to show them your love? Dr. Gary Chapman’s well-known book The Five Love Languages can be a great guide in pointing out the best way to turn love into some visible form, and not necessarily just through buying something. His five languages of Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch can help us focus on others, considering what they need, and how to serve them best. After spending a bit of time thinking about our relationships with others, we may also realize that before we can offer a gesture of love, we first need to offer an apology and repair some hurt that was done. His sequel, The Five Languages of Apology, written with Dr. Jennifer Thomas, can also provide guidance, detailing five different ways to apologize and reconnect through Expressing Regret, Accepting Responsibility, Making Restitution, Genuinely Repenting or Requesting Forgiveness. Using these two books together reminds us how closely love and reconciliation are connected.
If we take the many visible cues of love we see all around us right now, all those hearts and angels, as a gentle invitation to love instead of a reason to be cynical or selfish, we can begin to form the habit of seeing love as an opportunity to be other-focused, to consider the needs of others over ourselves, to get a little closer to the high standard of love described in scripture. Holding St. Valentine’s Day in this perspective prepares us for something else, as well. Just a week after February 14, the holy season of Lent begins. During those 40 days, we will walk with Jesus, Love made visible, to the cross, where he will offer his life in the supreme act of self-giving sacrifice. By already contemplating love and reconciliation on St. Valentine’s Day, we can be primed for this journey, and perhaps able to enter into it more deeply. If possible this year, don’t brush off St. Valentine’s Day as just another money grab, but enter into it with a spirit of docility, responding to the soft call of the Good Shepherd to contemplate Love, and prepare ourselves to walk with Him.
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