Hundreds of years before people began celebrating Valentine’s Day, the holiday du jour for February 14 was Lupercalia. The philosopher Plutarch refers to Lupercalia as a time when “young men of noble families run through the city naked and …strike those they meet with shaggy thongs.” They were history’s first streakers.
Though respectable people no longer took part in it, the festival was still being celebrated in the middle of the third century when a priest named Valentinus – we know him as St. Valentine –lived in Rome. Fast-forward to 496 AD. Lupercalia is a distant memory. February 14 is now the day to celebrate the Feast of St. Valentine.
Valentine’s Day is now associated with romantic love, but it didn’t start that way. St. Valentine – or Valentinus – was a third century Roman priest. He got in trouble for helping Christians (which was illegal at that time) and for flouting the emperor’s prohibition against marrying Christians. He was imprisoned, but the emperor took a liking to him – that is, until he tried to convert the emperor to Christianity. Claudius Gothicus was so angry at Valentine that he had him beaten with sticks and then beheaded on one of the major thoroughfares outside Rome.
I’ve never seen “I lost my head over you” on a Valentine’s Day card but if I ever do, I’m going to buy it.
During the Middle Ages, people somehow began thinking of the feast day of St. Valentine as a time to celebrate romantic love. The 14th century poet Chaucer wrote, “This was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
Romantic love is something to celebrate, and to have a special day for it is a good thing. Christians think that romantic love is wonderful – an entire book of the Bible is about it – but they don’t believe that it is enough to fulfill us. The people who wrote the Bible had terms to signify four different kinds of love and they understood that all four are important.
One had to do with romantic love. Another had to do with friendship. A third denoted family loyalty. And the fourth referred to God’s own, never-give-up, unconditional, and self-giving love.
Romantic love is like the first stage of a Saturn rocket – the kind that went to the moon (still the most powerful thing humans have ever made). The first stage is spectacular. It’s bright and fiery and exciting. But people who only know this first stage will never attain a stable orbit in their relationship. Romantic love will get people off the ground – gloriously so – but it won’t keep them there. Unless the other kinds of love are also present, the relationship is destined to crash and burn.
Stage Two is friendship love. This is the stage that gets a relationship into a sustainable orbit. In this kind of love people don’t so much look at each other as they look together in the same direction. They play together, talk together, and work together. They pursue goals together. This kind of love keeps relationships going.
Stage Three is family love – that mother bear, protective, blood-is-thicker-than-water kind of love. Stage Three can, and often does, get pretty rocky, but it does something the previous loves cannot do. It enables people to escape the gravity of self-centeredness and attain new heights.
But the Command Module – the thing that holds it all together – is that never-give-up, self-giving God-like love. This is the love that takes people further than they knew they could go. It sees them through a lifetime and carries them on till death. It is an especially beautiful thing when a man and woman and the family they have made still love each other after spending a lifetime together. This kind of love lasts even beyond that.
According to the Bible, this love comes from God. It does not originate in an experience, whether sexual or filial. It does not even originate in a bloodline. Family members can become detached; lovers can grow to hate each other. But the “love” that “comes from God,” remains.
(First published by Gannett.)