Some scholars believe Valentine’s Day began as Lupercalia – an ancient Roman fertility festival celebrated each year on February 15. Around 496, Pope Gelasius reportedly turned it into a Christian feast day to honor Saint Valentine and moved it to February 14. Historians are unsure exactly who he was referring to. There were at least three Christian martyrs named Valentine.
One possible candidate was a priest who, legend has it, was performing secret wedding ceremonies in opposition to a Roman law prohibiting young men of soldiering age from being married. Another legend has him arrested and falling in love with the jailer’s daughter – and just before his execution, writing her an impassioned letter signed, “From your Valentine.” Still, another finds Valentine being martyred for refusing to renounce his faith.
Henry Ansgar Kelly, a medieval scholar at UCLA says that Chaucer was the first to connect the theme of romance with Valentine’s Day. In a 1381 poem, Chaucer wrote:
For this was on St. Valentine’s Day
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.
By the 18th century, Valentine’s Day had become an actual holiday associated with hearts, love, cards and gifts. Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, one-quarter of all greeting cards are valentines – with approximately 1 billion exchanged each year.
Our modern-day celebration of Valentine’s Day bears little resemblance to the traditional church feast day. Yet in the midst of the romantic dinners and be-mine candies, we have an annual opportunity to consider the subject of love.
In his book, “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis wrote at length about it, dividing love into four basic categories: Affection, Friendship, Eros, Charity. While the first two are self-explanatory (and worth reading the book to learn more about), the second two are more complicated.
Lewis defines eros as romantic or sexual love. This is the love celebrated on February 14. Charity, he explains, is love involving God.
What all of these forms of love have in common is that they were created by God. They are gifts for us to practice, experience, and enjoy. Each has a specific purpose and a specific setting in which it can flourish and thrive. As is the case with just about everything in life, the loves can also be abused, misused, and twisted into things they were not intended to be.
Lewis also notes that love, in all of its varieties, is costly. It takes effort, intention, involves risk and vulnerability, and often leads to suffering. It is a dangerous thing.
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken,” he writes. “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.”
We see the dangerous, risky aspect of love illustrated in Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And the familiar verse from John’s gospel account reminds us that, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God’s love, as expressed in Christ, is generous, sacrificial, costly, unconditional, and unrestricted.
Perhaps the most descriptive Scripture passage about love is found in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with the love of your life, a friend, family members, solo, or not at all, this is still a great time to pause and reflect on the love described in the Bible – specifically the amazing love God displayed in sending His only Son to die on our behalf.
Lewis puts it this way: “Our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.” When Valentine’s Day has passed, the flowers have died, and the heart-shaped chocolates and candies are gone, His love remains. It never fails.