The Many Loves of Valentine’s Day

Remember Valentine’s Day parties in elementary school? I recall making “mailboxes” out of two giant hearts stapled together leaving an opening at the top, and then taped to the front of our desks. The rule was, if you brought valentines to hand out, you had to bring one for every person in the class– so that no one would be left out.

Before Valentine’s Day was celebrated with cards, roses, and chocolates, the church calendar had a feast day celebrating Saint Valentine. Just who was Saint Valentine? The internet is filled with articles trying to determine who he was, what he did, or even if there were three saints with the same name. One thing seems fairly certain: Valentine was an early martyr for his beliefs in Christ. It is thought he was executed on Feb. 14th in the year 270 — when Christianity was still illegal and punishable by death in the Roman Empire.

If we could have a conversation with St. Valentine today about love, he would likely ask us which kind of love? In the English language “love” is a multipurpose word in that we say we love our parents, love our school, love humanity, and even love chocolate. This would have been puzzling to someone of St. Valentine’s lifetime, because people used more specific words for various kinds of love.

In New Testament Greek, a language that was used widely throughout the Roman Empire of St. Valentine’s life, there were four types of love: eros (romantic love), storge (familial love), philia (deep friendship love), and agape, the deep, sacrificial love for all humans, all of humanity (the kind Jesus showed us). Valentine must have had agape love for Christ: “Greater love (agape) has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

In the Hebrew parts of the bible (Old Testament), there are many words describing different types of love, at least ten different words. One is hesed (also spelled hasad), which is so difficult to translate into English that we see phrases like “loving kindness” or “faithful love” in English bibles. Hesed implies a strong, loving relationship that is also filled with deeds of love — not just feelings, but action:

what does the Lord require of you 
but to do justice, and to love kindness [hesed]
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

God’s love for us is often described as hesed — God is faithful, kind, merciful, and always doing deeds proving his love for humans. Jesus experienced the hesed of God and returned the same kind of love towards God the Father. Jesus also expressed the ultimate form of agape love when dying on the cross and rising to new life so that humans may experience reconciliation with God and eternal life. Saint Valentine participated in this agape love when he died for his faith in and love for Jesus.

When my grade school teacher told us to bring valentines for everyone in the class, she was teaching us, at a child’s level, agape love: let no one be left out, for all are loved by God.

Be Mine — collage by Julie McCarty —

Until next time, Amen!

Sacred Word for New Year 2021

New Year’s resolutions are fine, but if you’re like me, they won’t last beyond a couple weeks. For the past decade or more, I’ve engaged in what some call a “sacred word” for the year. As I wrote about in 2011, this spiritual practice has some grounding in ancient Christianity. The word itself isn’t an idol or divine, but rather a spiritual theme for the year. One can reflect upon the deeper meaning of the word and draw strength and wisdom for one’s own beliefs, decision-making, and actions from dwelling on this theme over a longer course of time.

This past week, I put out a request on Facebook for 2021 sacred word ideas. Some responses were these words: hope, gratitude, acceptance, healing, empathy, forgiveness, mercy, wisdom, and worship. I have heard of others using words like consecration, birthing, welcoming, question, grace, wonder, beauty, recover, relinquish, or joy.

Often I have chosen a word that is something I want more of in my life, like beauty (inner, soul beauty). Once I broke with the single word idea and used a short bible verse: Speak, Lord: for your servant is listening (see 1 Samuel 3:10). One time I selected a word in early December, but then felt that the Holy Spirit gave me a different word later in the month. This past year I used two words: pray first, which helped me to develop more discipline (combating laziness) when it was my planned time for prayer.

To keep your special word in mind during the year, here are some ideas:

  • write or draw your word in a decorative doodle
  • photo your decorated word and place on homepage or screensaver of cell phone or electronic device
  • tape your word to the mirror in the bathroom where you get ready in the morning
  • put your word at the beginning of each journal entry
  • insert your word on the first day of every 2021 month in your electronic calendar
  • tape on your refrigerator
  • paint your word
  • reflect on your word while exercising
  • find prayers, quotes, or bible verses about your word
  • write a prayer or letter to someone using your word
  • share your word with trusted friends or faith group: listen to their ideas about the theme

I can say from experience that pondering or ruminating on one word, theme, or bible verse over an extended period of time produces inward — and outward– fruit. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, we can treasure these virtues, truths, or themes in our heart with the help of the Holy Spirit.

…Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean. –Luke2:19 (NET Bible)

Until next time, Amen!

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