The Gift of Sight
And so we come around again to Valentine’s Day. After weeks of mad scrambling for seats at the best restaurant, finding a babysitter, buying overpriced flowers and poor-quality chocolate in the shape of a heart, many of us will enjoy this high holiday of romantic indulgence. While we pay annual homage to this patron saint of happy marriages, most of us have never learned the deeper story of St. Valentine and why his example is worth following today.
As the story goes, Valentine was a Roman priest under the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Struggling to recruit men to fight his numerous wars, Claudius banned marriage, thinking that married men had become less enthusiastic than single men about going to war and dying as they ought. Undeterred, Valentine conducted weddings in secret. He was imprisoned around the year 268 and sentenced to death by beating and beheading, supposedly on February 14.
Legend has it that while awaiting his execution, Valentine prayed for his jailer’s daughter, curing her blindness. Before being led away to his glory, he sent a note to the girl, signing it “from your Valentine.”
Of course we don’t know the exact truth of Valentine so many years later, but as stories go, this one is pretty special. Imagine the society in which he lived: sexual licentiousness was rampant and marriage under threat. Christians were a persecuted minority. Valentine’s courage in bringing young Christians together in chaste marriage caused civil unrest and defied the dominant culture and even the law.
Sadly, there is no difficulty imagining such a world. Marriage in the United States has declined steadily since the advent of no-fault divorce in the 1970s. Young people delay marriage, often until their 30s, and a majority of couples cohabit before the wedding, savoring the delights of marriage while rejecting its commitments. The force of law also threatens marriage by defining away its essential quality as a male-female union. A new and credible threat is now rising that would remove limits on the number of spouses within marriage. Marriage as an institution and a cornerstone of our culture is weaker than it has ever been.
These threats to marriage seem to have one thing in common: They all include a “me-centered” approach to relationships. I can enjoy casual sex whenever I want, so why get married? When my marriage no longer makes me happy, I leave. When society doesn’t approve of my choice in partners, I engage political and cultural activists to redefine the family.
Even Christians too often understand love and marriage as originating in the human heart, giving wide latitude to its fickle emotions. That may be why our marriage health is not too different from that in the general culture.
The radical counter to this is the reality that love and marriage originate within and are grounded in God’s love. John the Beloved Apostle tells us that we can love only because God first loved us. The best expression of love we can muster, with all its imperfections, shortcomings, and selfishness, still draws its ultimate meaning from the eternal exchange of love within the Trinity.
That great litany of love described in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a vision of God’s love, not ours. He is the only one who can love with such patience, kindness, forbearance. Only the love of Christ “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
The surface-level, showy and self-serving love often displayed at Valentine’s Day is certainly popular. We just don’t do well in denying our own passions and desires. Others-centered—or Christ-centered—love is far more than just compromise, inconvenience, or self-denial. It is a complete commitment to the best for another, often at great personal expense. It involves crawling outside of one’s own pettiness and pride. It is the washing of another’s feet or the forgiving of another’s sins. To love truly, as God loves, is to give yourself away without expecting to be loved in return.
The Greek word martyria, from which we get our word martyr, is best translated as testimony or witness. Valentine was a martyr for marriage in death. All of us have an opportunity to be living witnesses to God’s purposes for marriage by testifying to its goodness in our lives, by defending its natural qualities in public discourse, and by demonstrating how human love is but a foreshadowing of the great love of Christ for the community of believers throughout time.
For this age, there may be no more powerful martyrdom.
Daniel Weiss is the founder and president of The Brushfires Foundation.