When I walked into Ann’s Hallmark and saw the crowd on Saturday I had to smile. First, because of the humanity it revealed. Two days before Valentine’s Day and most people were there because, like me, they had procrastinated. However, I also smiled out of admiration and hope. They were all there because of love. I obviously showed my emotion because one of the employees made a beeline right for me.
“Valentines Cards?” the young attendant asked me. “No, birthday…. at least first” I responded. She seemed surprised. “It is my wife’s birthday tomorrow”, I said with a smile. I added, “Then I will join the teeming masses at the Valentines cards section.” She showed me the Birthday area and smiled. Shortly thereafter I made my way over to the Valentine’s Day section and joined the teeming masses seeking ways to express their love.
The origins of this day and the facts regarding St. Valentine are hard to sort out. Some records indicate he was a Roman Christian martyred for his refusal to renounce his faith; others that he was a Bishop, martyred for the same reason. There are stories of healings attributable to his prayers and archeologists found a Roman catacomb and an ancient Church dedicated to the Christian whose name has become associated with this day. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of Valentines martyrdom.
Some seek to denigrate the origins of the day by attributing them to a “pagan” root. That would not be unusual since the early Church would often “baptize” pagan celebrations when their meaning could be re-presented through the fullness of the Christian faith. Love is a universal experience and it is the deepest need and hunger of every man and women.
In his first letter to the universal Church the late Pope John Paul wrote these words: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redeemer of Man, Redemptor Hominis, 10.1). The early Christians understood this. The beloved disciple John wrote in his first letter to the dispersed Christians, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16)
All love finds its fulfillment and “perfection”, which in the biblical sense means completion, in the Love of God. In his first letter to the universal Church Pope Benedict XVI wrote concerning the types of love and how they are all perfected, fulfilled and transformed in the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. He wrote concerning the unity of love of God and love of neighbor in these words:
“Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).” (God is Love, Deus Caritas Est, 18),
As a member of the Clergy, one of my favorite ministries is preparing engaged couples to receive the Sacrament of Marriage. I tell them as we begin that “Love is the end of Life and marriage is its classroom.” After which I explain that I use the word “end” in the philosophical and theological sense meaning goal or purpose; life is for love and love is for life. I assure them that throughout the seasons of faithful married love, the various expressions of love will unfold in their life together as they draw upon the grace they will soon receive in the Sacrament.
I explain that that by their cooperation with grace they will receive and give the love of God in and through one another. Love is dynamic, not static; it progresses as we cooperate with the grace of God. When we allow even our struggles, failures and mistakes to become the material out of which we are converted, changed… by love, into Love.
For most of us, marriage is the means and the way to holiness, properly understood. Holiness means becoming like Jesus, and learning to love as He loves. St Paul writes of the self emptying love, called in Greek “kenosis“, in his letter to the Philippians, “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…” (Phil 2:5-8). This is the love into which we are all invited through the Paschal mystery, the saving life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul speaks of the “more excellent way” and reminds us that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13: 1, 8a). The chapter needs to be read in its entirety if we want to learn this way. It speaks of the kind of love which is, in words of the Song of Songs, is “stronger than death”. For the Christian, all human love will find its perfection in the communion of love into which we are called when we pass from this life into the life eternal.
Last week I served a funeral for a holy woman of my parish. She and her husband of fifty years are an example of this kind of love. As I watched his tears flow when he approached the altar to receive the Holy Eucharist, I saw the mystery revealed. The tears were a mix of the grief of loss and the fire of faith. Richard and Leigh shared a love story recounted by many that day by those who knew them. However, I knew – and so did he - on that day when we commended his beloved wife to the Lord of love, that love story was far from over.
Theirs is the kind of transforming love that stood the test – and responded to the invitation- of many years. It only grew stronger and deeper. It no longer needed words, only presence. Over the years I have served the Lord I have had the privilege of being there when people have died “in the Lord”. I have learned that people die the way they live. Leigh lived and died in God’s love and it paved her passage to eternity.
All of this went through my mind last Saturday as I squeezed through the crowd to find a Valentine’s Day card for my wife, best friend, and partner in the journey of faith. It seems the older we get, the simpler it all gets. Whereas the crowd would have frustrated me as a younger man, Saturday it made me smile. It was one more invitation to find Valentine, by choosing once again the more excellent way, the way of Love.