Valentine’s Day can be a time when those not in a romantic relationship can feel sidelined and excluded. Everywhere there are hearts and flowers. Romance is the thing to be involved in. And we are involved in a romance as Christians. God calls himself our husband, the Church is the bride of Christ. No suitor could pursue his beloved more diligently than God pursues us because he loves us so much.
The readings for the special Valentine’s Day service were Psalm 33:1-5, 20-22, 1 Corinthians 13, John 15:1-17. My reflection follows.
Unless you’ve spent the last few weeks living under a stone, you cannot have failed to notice that 14th February is St Valentine’s Day. Everywhere you’ll find hearts and flowers wall to wall, special offers on chocolates, garish cards with silky red hearts on them, bunches of red roses, and so on. The day has been used to sell as many things as possible, stretching to the limit what could possibly be construed as an appropriately romantic present. I’ve even had an email urging me to buy my partner a biblical Hebrew course as a Valentine’s gift! Such emphasis on romance can leave those who have no romantic involvement with anyone feeling distinctly left out, somehow not making the grade. To be ‘someone’ you need a Valentine is the unspoken message of the day.
This all seems to be a far cry from what little we know of St Valentine himself. Valentine was a priest or bishop of Terni who lived in the third century AD. Legend has it that he performed marriages in secret after the emperor had forbidden them to ensure he had soldiers with no family ties. He was interrogated by Emperor Claudius II who tried to persuade him to convert to Roman paganism. The alternative was death. Valentine did not relent but instead tried to convert the emperor to Christianity. This resulted in Valentine dying a martyr’s death traditionally thought to have been on 14th February 269.
It would be possible to think that Valentine’s Day is yet another example, along with Christmas and Easter, of the secular world hijacking a religious festival in order to make money. The emphasis on romance, which can be a cheap and transient form of love, seems out of place as a way to celebrate the day that a man went to his death for his faith. Yet Valentine, as millions of other Christians before and after him had been wooed by a lover whose love was neither cheap nor transient, and could not forsake him for another lover.
Valentine had been wooed by God, God who doesn’t just love, but who IS love.
Romance is an integral concept in our faith. In many places in the Old Testament, there are references to God as the husband and Israel as his bride. In Isaiah, for instance, we hear: ‘your maker is your husband – the Lord Almighty is his name.’ If you have read of the relationship between Israel and God, you can see that it didn’t go well. That was not because of the faithlessness of God but of Israel. Time and again the people vowed to follow God’s way, to live with him in a covenant relationship, but so often they turned away to other gods like an adulterous wife.
The first flush of new love had hardly had time to fade before Israel turned from God. Only three new moons after the escape from Egypt Moses spoke with God on Mount Sinai. Using Moses as his messenger, God offered the people of Israel: ‘If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession.’ And the people said, ‘All the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Yet when Moses went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone on which the laws were written the people urged Aaron to make them a god, and they worshipped the golden calf. Despite this God renewed the covenant with Israel. God described himself to Moses: ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.’ And so he proved to be despite the numerous times Israel was unfaithful.
God spoke time and again of his love as a husband to his people through his prophets, perhaps most eloquently through Hosea, whom he commanded to wed an adulterous wife. Israel ignored God’s entreaties and eventually turned against God so many times that she became separated from God. Instead of living in the Promised Land, the people were taken to foreign lands and dispersed. Even in this God was trying to persuade his bride to return to him. He was doing whatever he could out of his steadfast love for Israel.
The prophets had promised that one day the separation between God and his people would end. That came about when Jesus died to pay the necessary price of reconciliation. The Church became the new Israel, the bride of Christ as we are told in Revelation. St Paul writes to the people of the church in Corinth saying: ‘I promised you to one husband, to Christ.’ He worried that they too, like the people of Israel before them, might be led astray ‘from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ’.
Perhaps one of the saddest things to observe is unrequited love. One person pours out their love in countless ways but their beloved will not or cannot respond. God has poured out his love in so many ways on his people – in creation, through the love of others, in answering prayer, and finally in the life and death of Jesus. It’s up to each of us to respond or not.
Like St Valentine, we who call ourselves Christian have responded to God’s love in Christ. We have become joined to Jesus as branches of the vine and his life now flows through us by his Spirit. That life allows us to ‘bear much fruit’. Being secure in God’s love we are able to offer love to others in return, a love of the same quality as that of Christ.
The love Christians focus on is not ‘eros’, the romantic love which fuels the advertising campaigns of this season. The love we receive from God is ‘agape’, self-denying love which has as its driving force the good of the beloved. This is the kind of love that allows parents to discipline children and allows good friends to challenge one another when they see error in the other’s life. The guiding principle is the best interest of the other. Paul expands on just what this love looks like in his famous passage 1 Corinthians 13.
Unlike the somewhat excluding messages of the commercial Valentine’s Day, the message of love we proclaim as Christians is for all to both receive and give. No one is too young or too old; you can be partnered or single, good looking or plain, able bodied or disabled, rich or poor. In all this it’s good to remember that loving others is not our own bright idea. As John tells us: ‘We love because he first loved us.’ Our love is a response to the wooing of God.
I invite you to listen to how George Herbert saw that love in his poem called simply ‘Love’:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said: You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor