February is the month we talk about love. Valentine’s Day is when we celebrate “eros”—the intimate, passionate love of two people. The stores will be full of red, heart-shaped cards, candy in fabric-lined boxes and dozens of real and fake roses.
St. Valentine, tradition says, was a third-century Roman priest arrested and martyred for aiding Christian couples persecuted by the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Since the Middle Ages we have celebrated “courtly” love on his feast day, February 14th.
I don’t oppose the idea of the holiday—celebrating love. But I have mixed feelings about its practice. As a child in grade school, I remember happily decorating a shoebox with red construction paper and pink hearts. I remember buying packages of Valentine cards and saving my allowance to purchase boxes of conversation-hearts candies to include with the cards for my favorite friends.
I also remember the fear that I wouldn’t get any Valentines from my classmates or, even worse, would find unkind cards in my box. And, though I often pretended I didn’t care, I secretly hoped for a card from whoever I had a crush on that year—and felt desolate when no card came.
To love and be loved by a special person is one of the great gifts God gave us. But eros is not the only kind of love; I wish we gave more airtime to the other forms of love.
What about the kind of love Jesus was talking about when he answered the question of the scribe in Mark 12:28-31?
The scribe asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The love Jesus is calling us to have for our God, ourselves and our neighbors is not mentioned on Valentine’s Day: the mysterious, awesome, empowering love of God that opens our hearts and lives to new possibilities of broad living; the compassionate, supportive love for our neighbors; and the self-accepting, forgiving, confident love of our selves.
We don’t have heart-shaped candy boxes to celebrate these kinds of love. But neither do we have to tremble in fear that God won’t return our love; God loves us no matter what.
The great blessing of being loved, though, is not the greatest blessing of love. Giving love, by loving your neighbor and yourself, will change your life. In fact, if we all follow this first commandment it will change our world.
The sweetness of both loving and being loved by God gives us courage, assurance and gratitude. And learning to love ourselves more—despite the cautions we hear about being humble—makes more room for us to love our neighbors. We don’t wrap this love up in red construction paper or heart-shaped boxes, but it is the most delightful and powerful love of all.