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The Paradox of Valentine's Day
It combines sexuality with spirituality, the sacred and the secular

It is a strange holiday indeed that turns our thoughts towards love, and most often, romantic love, but at the same time bears the name of a Catholic saint and martyr: Saint Valentine.

I can think of nothing that more clearly reflects the often strained relationship between spirituality and sexuality in Christian faith and practice, than this. 

First ... a bit of history.

Though the precise identity of Saint Valentine is not known, it is generally agreed that he was killed during the Roman persecution for refusing to renounce his faith. One tradition about the saint holds that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young, single men -- his crop of potential soldiers.

Valentine, believing that this decree defied the will of God, resisted the emperor's authority by continuing to perform marriages for young lovers. When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that the priest be put to death. Thus, we are faced with the fascinating coincidence of a holiday named for a person who died defending his faith having been transformed into a holiday most closely associated in the popular imagination with romance rather than religion.

Why religion and romance belong together

In fact, this is far less strange than first appears, for an emphasis upon the relationship between love for God and for another person has been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the outset.

The creation story contained in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis places God in the role of chief sponsor of the love that connects a man and a woman. In the garden of Eden, there was no conflict between the physical relationship enjoyed by Adam and Even and their relationship with God. Indeed, everything began in a state of perfect harmony. It was not lust that brought about the breach between humankind and God, but rather pride, as the creatures concluded they could ignore the Creator.

To be sure, as the story was interpreted by theologians and church "fathers" centuries later, Eve became a temptress, and sex was seen as somehow closely identified with the sin that brought about the Fall. As a result, in the context of today's culture wars, when the church defends the institution of marriage, it often comes across as holding not only a negative view of the role of women, but of sex itself.

Here is one of the greatest ironies in the entire history of the church: the same God who created humanity as "male and female" and thus made sexuality possible, is portrayed in popular piety as a judge and policeman who seems always to be placing restrictions upon the free expression of human sexuality, and enforcing those restrictions with condemnation and punishment up to and including hell, fire and brimstone. 

Perhaps the secular holiday of Valentine's Day represents a golden opportunity for Christians to recapture a more authentic dimension of biblical tradition that has been too long forgotten or ignored. A saint who went to his death defending young lovers against the abusive and arbitrary power of the state, may be be precisely what the church needs to dramatize its positive position with respect to human sexuality. But even more important, this secular festival of love may be an opportunity for individual Christians to see that God desires nothing more for each of us than that we find in loving relationships with each other, something of that love which is of God.

Do Christians make better lovers?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles P. Henderson.