Unrequited love: the St. Valentine’s Day tragedy

A friend and I once met a couple of Muslim acquaintances at a restaurant. We had arranged the meeting as a chance to get to know one another and to talk about our faith commitments.

In the course of the conversation, my new Muslim friend surprised me by saying, “There is a Muslim way to do everything.” He went on to explain that there is a Muslim way to walk, a Muslim way to tie your shoes and a Muslim way to perform all one’s daily activities.

I responded by telling him that there is a Christian way to do everything too, which surprised him. I then quoted St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church: “Do everything in love.”

St. Paul gave this instruction immediately after exhorting the Corinthian Christians to be on their guard, to stand firm in the faith, to be people of courage and to be strong. Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased it: “Keep your eyes open, hold tight to your convictions, give it all you’ve got, be resolute, and love without stopping.” The apostle Paul clearly believed that whatever a Christian is required to do, he or she can do in love.

If a Christian finds it necessary to confront a friend over his self-destructive behaviors, he will do it in a loving manner, as an act of love toward his friend. If she writes a letter to the editor, expressing her disagreement with a recent op-ed piece, she will do so with a strength inspired and characterized by love. If he chooses (or, for that matter, refuses) to participate with co-workers in a labor strike, he will do so because it seems to him the loving thing to do.

To “do everything in love” is the Christian way (though that has often been forgotten.) Christians value love as the greatest of the virtues and consider it to be the chief descriptor of the character of God. They are called to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved…”

Valentine’s Day is a Christian holiday for good reason: Christians are supposed to be recognizable by their love. But it was not romantic love that gave St. Valentine his reputation. He is remembered for his open-eyed, conviction-based, resolute, give-it-all-you’ve-got love for Jesus – a love that eventually sent him to martyrdom. How ironic that St. Valentine, who once commanded a Roman magistrate to destroy the idols of his pagan deities, is now virtually equated with a sissified version of the Roman god Cupid!

Christians celebrate romantic love, but they understand that love is more than romance. The Greek in which the Bible’s New Testament was written has four different words for love, only one of which refers to erotic love. The early Christians were so familiar with the nuances of love that one word just wouldn’t do.

They understood that there is a love that is most fully expressed in families, and they had a word for that. It is sometimes a rough and tumble kind of love, but it is fiercely loyal. It speaks its mind, but gives its all. This is the love that characterized early Christian relationships, and is constantly expressed in the familial terms they used to address each other: “brother” and “sister.”

They used another word to express the love of friendship. It appears frequently in the New Testament, and is used to describe Jesus’s love for his disciples, his disciples love for him and God’s love for his people. It is a love characterized by camaraderie. St. James goes so far as to speak of the possibility – incredible as it seems – that humans could be the friends of God.

But by far the most common word for love in the Bible is one that came into use around the time the first Christians appeared. It indicates a commitment that gives sacrificially for the good of another, and is the kind of love that best describes God himself. This unconditional love of God is what St. Valentine experienced, and then offered back to God in martyrdom. The St. Valentine’s Day tragedy is that this love – God’s love – often goes unrecognized and unrequited.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/8/14

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