There are all kinds of Valentine’s traditions, and various stories about St. Valentine himself. Some say he was martyred for sharing the message of the love of Jesus with the Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius demanded that Valentine renounce his faith, and Valentine refused. Other stories say he helped Christian couples marry in secret to avoid persecution.
Some people celebrate Valentine’s Day with romance. Some people make a big fuss, or hope their partner will. Some couples don’t observe it all. Single folks or people with recently-ended relationships sometimes feel overlooked or worse on this day that seems to be all about having a partner.
I tend to think about Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to think about the ways God calls us to love one another beyond one single meaning of the word. In English, we have one word for love, and have to qualify it with various adjectives: romantic love, brotherly/sisterly love, familial love, and others. In ancient Greek, the language most of our Christian scriptures were originally written in, there were many words for love.
“Agape” means “love that seeks to serve others” or “love that seeks the benefit of others.” It’s sometimes translated as sacrificial love, or love that compels us to consider and attend to the needs of others. Agape is the kind of love Paul talks about in the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
Agape isn’t co-dependence posing as love, or love that enables destructive cycles. Love that does those things isn’t really love, after all.
Agape is the ability to break the cycles of selfishness and self-centeredness that keep us from considering how we might bless others (and then going ahead and doing it), that keep us from realizing we’re in the loving center of God’s own self in this very moment, and so are the people we’ve decided we don’t like, for whatever (often petty) reason.
This Valentine’s Day, I’m thinking about these things, and about the journey Jesus shares with us in the ways of honest-to-God love. Agape seeks mercy, advocates for justice, and sees the God-bearing reality of every person, even through the layers and facades we’ve built in bids at self-preservation.
Agape is the lens of love through which God sees us. It’s the clarity in the vision of Jesus, and the truth in his prophetic witness. It’s the forgiveness of betrayal and the triumph of resurrection. It’s the ultimate subversion of all our upside-down ways. It’s the presence of God in the manger of Bethlehem, in the poor boy of Nazareth, and in all of us. It is patient, it is kind. It is real.
May you be blessed with the love of God and one another this Valentine’s Day and always.