The editor of this blog emailed me with a reminder to submit my next post. “Published on Valentine’s Day,” he wrote, “for better or worse.”
I wanted to write back, “For worse! Clearly, for worse! Cancel it!”
I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day. As much as I bemoan the commercialization of Christmas, Valentine’s Day seems to be a 100%-Hallmark Holiday, with no redeeming value. Its portrayal in movies and TV shows displays a sort of immature, mushy “love” that doesn’t look anything like love as I know it.
Not helping its cause is the fact that we really have no idea who St. Valentine was, or if he even existed at all. The conspiracy theorist inside me imagines that about 500 years ago, some bishop who owned a handful of flower shops or had a connection with a monastery that made nice greeting cards decided creating a romantic holiday in the dead of winter with no competing celebrations would be a shrewd business move.
But since I would prefer to not be a spoilsport or cynic, I will grit my teeth and suggest two reasons why I should actually love Valentine’s Day. I’ll see if I convince myself (and yourself, if you’re also a skeptic) by the end. After all, the best way to defend your belief is to consider the good arguments on the other side.
1. The actual legend of St. Valentine has nothing to do with the “mushy” love you reject.
While it’s true we don’t know anything about St. Valentine, the same goes for a number of other favorite saints (St. George, for instance). As I like to say, every saint exists. Some of them actually lived.
The legend of St. Valentine is more like a constellation of a bunch of mini-legends, so let’s just take the earliest-existing one (from Wikipedia):
The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493); alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine, the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II, known as Claudius Gothicus. He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome. Helping Christians at this time was considered a crime. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner – until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor – whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate.
St. Valentine was so committed to Christian marriage that he faced his own death, which appears to have been anything but quick and painless. (To paraphrase a recent quote I heard, Jesus teaches two things: to love without limit, and that if you do, they’ll kill you for it.)
Now that’s more like it. Not to say we should aspire to face bloody deaths in the name of love. But love definitely requires consistent acts of sacrifice and steady commitment. St. Valentine understood that love is not only a feeling in the heart, but a series of others-centered actions lived day after day. Love is a choice. This is the true message of Valentine’s Day.
2. We give flowers, chocolates, cards, etc. for the same reason we attend Mass on Sunday. You think Mass is important, don’t you?
Giving gifts is an important part of love. It’s fine to believe in your heart that you love your friends or significant other, but that love has to be demonstrated in the world. Given flesh. Incarnated, if you will – with some flowers, or chocolates, or a mix CD.
Of course, each Sunday we celebrate our belief that God’s love for us was made incarnate in the most incredible way in the person of Jesus Christ. God doesn’t need us to show up for Mass, but we do it because it’s one small way we can say: “Thanks for the love, God. Now here’s what I got you.” When we serve those in need, listen to a friend going through a tough time, and, yes, do a little something special for important folks to us on Valentine’s Day, we incarnate God’s love in our own small, humble way.
Now that I’ve thought about it some, I feel newly inspired to claim the holiday for non-mushy love. My challenge to myself and to you is this: In addition to the card and flowers, give of yourself in some intentional way today. Pick a couple of people you love and let them know it in a way that is meaningful to them. Then St. Valentine’s memory, real or not, will be celebrated well.