February 14, 2008
Recovering the Christian meaning of Valentine's Day
In honor of Valentine's Day, I'm reposting a blog entry from my Suburban Christian blog that ran a year ago.
I think this is probably because many of us haven't really seen it as a Christian holiday. But it really is. As I mention in my book Singles at the Crossroads, St. Valentine (or Valentinus) was a priest and physician in third-century Rome. According to church tradition, Valentine was known for doing good deeds, caring for the poor, healing the sick. He was arrested during a persecution of Christians, and the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus handed him over to a magistrate. While in custody, Valentine healed the magistrate's blind, adopted daughter, and the entire family was converted to Christianity. Upon hearing this, the emperor had Valentine beheaded--on February 14th.
From then on, Christians have commemorated this day in memory of Valentine's life of selfless service and ministry. And note what is missing from this narrative - it's not all about romantic couple love. Rather, the emphasis is on love of neighbor, agape service love, not romantic love. The romantic emphasis didn't come until the Middle Ages, and then of course it was heightened by 18th-century Romanticism and now exacerbated by modern Hollywood mythology and Western consumer culture. I think Valentine's Day should be reclaimed by Christians with a more holistic, trinitarian, agape understanding of love, not this narrow emphasis on romantic couple love.
After all, in Christian tradition, romantic love is not the highest love. Greater love has no one than this, that we lay down our lives for our friends. For much of church history, friendship love was acknowledged as the highest form of Christian love and service. And actually, romantic love was viewed suspiciously because it tended to be overly emotive, irrational and could create an idolatry of the love interest. So while we certainly should love and honor our spouses and significant others on Valentine's Day, we should only see this as one particular expression of the greater love that is agape love of neighbor.
Last night my wife said that she hadn't gotten me anything for Valentine's Day, and I said, "Great! Don't get me anything." Don't buy into the commercialism of the secularized holiday. I told her that if she really wanted to get me something, she could make a contribution to Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse or something else, or find some other creative way to share God's love with the world. And instead of spending lots of money on an expensive date out, we're exercising stewardship by having a quiet date night at home. Not to diss romance entirely (both of us are NF romantic saps on the Myers-Briggs), but this is our modest attempt to celebrate Valentine's Day more Christianly.
So commemorate Valentine's Day by being other-centered and honoring others in the spirit of Christian love. Get a pack of children's valentines and give them to your friends and coworkers. Use the day as an opportunity to call, write or e-mail someone you haven't heard from for a while. Honor Christ by serving him in the spirit of St. Valentine. Happy Valentine's Day!