In these troubled times neither puppy love nor romantic love will suffice
Valentine's Day is one of those holidays in which themes secular and religious are hopelessly intertwined. To demonstrate this I've surveyed the Internet for websites pertaining to the day. Some trace the origins of the holiday directly back to the Catholic saint of the same name; while others emphasize its origins in the Greco-Roman world in which the gods and goddesses of antiquity rule. Some preachers rail against the excesses of commercialism involved in what they see as a pagan festival. One webmaster invokes Scripture against the holiday, "Heathen days are utterly condemned by God: 'Learn not the way of the nations...for the customs of the peoples are false.'" Others have no problem blending the sacred and secular themes into a seamless whole.
One thing that everyone agrees with is that the word, "love," is central to the celebration. But what is the quality of the love being commended to us this day?
The editors of one website I found get right down to the basics: "As a noted Southern California psychiatrist observed, 'There are three basic needs in life: money, food and sex. And combining the last two can be lots of fun!'" No wonder some preachers have problems with the holiday.
My own view is that it's important to make some distinctions about the kind and quality of loving relationships one enters into. And that's one of the very difficult things about the word "love." It is overused, more often than not misused, sometimes even wantonly abused by those who invoke it.
Which reminds me of a wonderful story. It seems a young man was looking for a greeting card sometime before Valentine's Day. After searching diligently for just the right card, he came upon one that impressed him greatly. It read, "To my one true love, the most beautiful woman in all the world." "This brings tears to my eyes," he commented to the clerk standing at the cash register nearby. "This is a message that any woman would love to receive. ... I'll take six!"
Perhaps the most powerful words about love in the Bible were written by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging, symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I am nothing. ...."
This is the passage in the Bible selected most frequently for reading during wedding ceremonies; so much so that I sometimes wonder how much thought has gone into the selection. For when it comes to love, one size does not fit all. What applies to a suit of clothes also applies to love: what works for a 90 pound teenager does not work quite as well for a 390 Sumo wrestler!
To lift Paul's words out of context and make them into a statement about love in general strips them of their bite and meaning. Paul was speaking not to people in general, but to a particular group of Christians who had real, personal experience with things like "speaking in tongues," "prophecy" as well as the loss of life, limb, and property mentioned in the letter.
As indicated Paul was speaking not out of some abstract theory, but out of his own deep experience to a people who shared such experience and had suffered much for their faith. And Paul was saying that the particular love that has been seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus gave meaning to even the most difficult aspects of their lives.
In this spirit, he continues: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And so faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love."
Thus Paul's words were not simply innocuous generalities in which everyone could nod off in sleepy agreement, they represented a specific call to action, requiring difficult choices, deeper understanding, and commitment. This is what I find missing so often when chapter 13 is read as a little homily on the nature of true love.
When Paul speaks of love as eloquently as he does in his letter to the Corinthians, he reflects a wisdom born out of an ongoing relationship with God. That is why we must eventually get quite specific and quite personal about the "childish things" that must be "put away" as we move toward a mature understanding of love.
Among the things that we are challenged to put behind us are the sentimental sorts of "puppy love," the jingoistic "patriotic love," the fickle forms of "romantic love," and yes, the abusive and even violent forms of love that seek to control and dominate. We are challenged to love not humankind in general but specific people in specific ways: a parent with Alzheimer's, a child with learning disorders, a spouse struggling with an addiction, all sorts of people with chronic illnesses, problems, quirks of personality or character. We are not simply to love and affirm what the world finds lovable, we are to search for specific ways of loving God's dear ones, and encourage them along the way, even as they encourage us. Along that path lies the fulfillment of life, not only on Valentine's Day but every day.
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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.