Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine’s Day and the Meaning of Love

Judging by TV ads, Valentine’s Day is beginning to rank close to Christmas for pushing romantic items such as perfume and jewelry. I noticed that custom pajamas and snuggly teddy bears were touted as really desirable gifts, even “unforgettable” as one ad put it.

Valentine’s Day is obliquely both poignantly religious and grossly secular in its origins, a kind of eclectic amalgamation suited to personal tastes whatever one’s bent. Secular legend has it that a pagan day on February 14 honoring Juno, the king of gods and goddesses, was a time when young women put their names on slips of paper and placed them in a jar. In a kind of love lottery, young men would draw a name, and the signer became his special friend for the day or longer, sometimes a year. One strand of the story has this done in all youthful innocence while another has an immoral relationship woven in.

The religious aspect comes from the memory of a priest named St. Valentine. The Roman emperor of the third century, Claudius, desired to raise an army for military exploits but had few volunteers because men resisted leaving their families for extended periods of time. To solve this dissent, the emperor abolished all engagements and weddings, but St. Valentine continued to secretly marry couples. Valentine was discovered, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for his crime. The prison keeper’s daughter spent time with Valentine encouraging him. Shortly before his death on February 14, he sent her a last note. It was signed, “Love, from your Valentine.”

As time went by, the church substituted saints’ names for those of women in the jar and “christianized” the date that formerly honored Juno.

Valentine’s Day will always be an interweave of religious and secular, but Christian believers understand that every day is Valentine’s Day in the context of God’s loving redemption in Christ. John 3:16 is always God’s supreme gesture. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

St. Valentine’s devotion to Christian marriage and his self-sacrifice for his conviction is but a dim reflection of redemption’s love in Christ, “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Galatians 1:4).

It is regrettable that Valentine’s Day is often degraded by lust and licentiousness with such generic terms as “lover” and “partner.” The terms “sweetheart” or even “spouse” would cast it toward a biblical perspective.

Speaking of love, the Greek language in which the New Testament was written had three words for love -- eros, phileo and agape. Eros is a term of raw lust or mere human appetite and is not found in the Bible. Phileo describes a fondness or friendship love and is often used in the Bible for human and even divine love.

Agape is usually defined as uniquely God’s love (as in John 3:16), the highest kind, but that is only partially true. Agape love is really love for its own sake, a bestowal of attention and affection apart from any feeling or romantic passion. It is love that is based on objective truth and not on subjective sentiment.

My favorite New Testament example of the use of the word agape is the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who “loved (agape) the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). A close second is John 3:19. “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved (agape) darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”

When put into the context of God’s love, agape is objective love sent in our direction just because of God’s valuation on our assigned inherent worth to Him not our self-generated goodness or devotion to God. Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul’s worst sins hadn’t been committed yet when Christ died but Jesus died for him regardless. 1 John 4:19 reaffirms this objective, unearned love: “We love Him because He first loved us.”

Agape love is love for its own sake, not because we are such nice people or worthy in any way but because God’s grace was directed toward us arising out of His sovereign will to do so. This unique selfless love is the theme of countless Scriptures and poetic rhymes across church history. Perhaps the most stirring words ever were written by Frederick Lehman in 1917:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Dave Virkler

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