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Love is all you need

Kate Barrett | Thursday, February 10, 2011

Since 496 A.D. the Church has celebrated St. Valentine’s feast day on Feb. 14th. For many centuries, of course, the day simply recognized the person of Valentine — a priest imprisoned and subsequently martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ around 269 A.D., a time when Christianity was still considered a crime against the Roman Empire. Valentine aided his fellow Christians in whatever ways he could, including by marrying young Christian couples, until he got caught. The Emperor Claudius actually became fond of his prisoner Valentine, until Valentine decided to have a go at converting Claudius to the faith. Enraged, Claudius condemned him to death.

When I hear stories of martyrs, I imagine Jesus himself observing those deaths with heartfelt pain and love. St. Valentine had this in common with Christ himself: Knowing he was God’s beloved, he offered his life to share that love. Perhaps Valentine had heard and taken to heart a verse from John’s gospel: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:14).

We can be attracted by what we hear every day about love when we check our favorite websites, listen to music or watch TV. The images, expectations and many conflicting messages come at us fast and furious. When we want to think more seriously about the topic, however, we ought to turn to the wisdom of Jesus, Love in human form. Today’s version of the feast day of St. Valentine, for many, has become simply another example of our Christian faith crashing headlong into cultural demands that actually conflict with the best of what we know love to be.

Jesus said many things about love, probably many more than are even recorded in the gospels. One thing he never promised about love: That it’s easy. He certainly didn’t recommend chocolate, flowers, a fancy restaurant or a quick hook-up just to ensure that you aren’t “alone” on Valentine’s Day. No, Jesus teaches us that love packs a wallop; that love will ask our lives of us and will give us life to the fullest. “Love your enemies,” he said, without any sugar-coating. “Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

Jesus spoke both about how we are to love as well as about how we are loved. And we would do well to listen, on Valentine’s Day and every day, for don’t we make some of our dumbest mistakes in love when we forget that we are loved? Don’t we allow ourselves to settle for some cheap substitute for love precisely when we lose sight of the fact that we are absolutely, unconditionally, at each and every moment, God’s beloved? “Even the hairs on your head are all counted,” Jesus told the people who followed him in the days of his public ministry (Luke 12:7).

We ought to head into Valentine’s Day remembering that our commercial, secular society promotes pleasure, usually through exercising our purchasing power. Our faith, lived honestly and whole-heartedly, cannot always promise pleasure but will lead us through love to genuine happiness. Consider the beautiful and well-known words of St. Paul, who — once he knew Christ’s love — wrote of love as nothing other than the active stance of our lives toward others: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Now, we can be serious about our faith and still feel the allure of the commerce connected to this holiday — who can resist a heart-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, wrapped with its fellow hearts in a pack of six and festooned with a large come-hither sign announcing its deeply discounted, buy-me-now Valentine’s Day price? And, full disclosure, I bought some heart-shaped Peeps (how great is it that Peeps are now available for every holiday?!) and three different kinds of chocolates for my children and my husband. But those treats — and treats they are — cannot possibly express the truth of my love for them, or reflect the daily challenges and joys of trying to lay down our lives for one another as followers of Jesus Christ.

Consider St. Valentine’s feast day an opportunity to celebrate the loves of our lives, and perhaps too a chance to “re-align” our understanding of love, so that it more closely conforms to what our Lord Jesus teaches us about love. As St. John wrote, “Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). The daily offering of ourselves to our friends and our families; to strangers and yes, to our enemies, is truly worth celebrating.

This week’s Faithpoint is written by Kate Barrett, director of the Emmaus Program. She can be reached at Katharine.S.Barrett.28@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.