Whether you associate this day with an early Christian celebration of St. Valentinus who, popular tradition says, was imprisoned for performing weddings forbidden to soldiers, or to customs of courtly love in England in the high middle ages – when valentines and confectionaries would be offered to the object of one’s amorous desires – in the Philippines, Valentine’s Day is a popular celebration of love.
When I was a child in a very traditional Catholic school, this was the day we were taught to send valentines cards to all our friends and teachers, even when we didn’t know the meaning of, “Will you be my valentine?” or “I love you!” Now, as an adult, the Valentine’s Day culture has intensified, creating the second most important day in the Philippines for gift giving and eating out. Today, not only Hallmark cards are offered to signal love, but even gold, rubies and diamonds. Today, for the fortunate, not only the excitement of a first date with a special someone, but also, for the seasoned, the joy of a special occasion when love can be renewed. Today, not only roses of timid pink or confident red are exchanged. Today, under the twinkling stars and encouraging light of the new moon, a young man takes the hand of a young woman, and asks, “Will you marry me?”
Whatever your situation, enjoy the day! Whatever it is you give, don’t forget its central challenge: give love.
Without love, all is just empty noise, all is shameless exploitation. St. Paul taught that: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything that I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor: 1-3).
It is possible, I guess, that the gift which is supposed to symbolize love, be somehow devoid of love. That the rose is fresh with morning dew, but the spirit is self-centered, controlling and possessive. That the work is done with increasing passion and dedication, but escapes a gnawing emptiness at home. That the smile, the kiss, the embrace today no longer convey their urgent message yesterday nor their hope for tomorrow. On Valentine’s Day, give love.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…” (1 Cor 13: 4-8a).
That is so because God is love. And God is patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, not inflated, not rude…
The first encyclical of our Pope Benedict XVI, “Deus Caritas Est” (DCE), and arguably his most inspiring, is about this. Its first line reads: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). These words express, Benedict teaches, “the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny.” Here, Pope Benedict is drawing attention to what all the saints before him, St. Ignatius included, have drawn attention to: God is love, and his love is turned towards us. We must not only know that in our head. We must experience that in our entire being. In response we turn towards him in love, and try to live according to love’s demands. On Valentine’s Day, this includes giving love, not just Hershey kisses.
“We have come to believe in God’s love.” Benedict XVI teaches, “…in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or of a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE, 1). Considering the passion, vehemence, violence and hatred with which we sometimes advocate our “lofty ideas” or our “ethical choices” so essential to Christianity, Benedict XVI acknowledges for Christianity “the centrality of love.”
Fr. Roque Ferriols would have said, “If you’re tempted to look up a copy of ‘Deus Caritas Est’ in the internet, and read it, give in, for there are many worse temptations in life one could give in to!” Even on Valentine’s Day! The encyclical has two parts. The first is an extended reflection on love. The second is on “the practice of love by the Church as a community of love. Of course, on Valentine’s Day, I will not take you through the twenty-eight numbers of this letter!
But let me say that for me, the most fascinating part is the way Benedict XVI handles love as eros and love as agape.
“That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks…” Driving passion, I guess, or pulsating lust. This is contrasted to the more Christian notion of self-donating “agape.” Benedict XVI points out that Enlightenment philosophers like Nietzsche complained that Christianity “poisoned eros,” – always finding in it a dynamic that led to vice. “Here the German philosopher was expressing the widely held perception: doesn’t the Church with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a foretaste of the Divine?”
Needless to say, Benedict XVI is at pains to show how Christianity has not poisoned eros. But where eros in history has been guilty of reducing pure sex to a commodity (as in prostitution), or in reducing one’s human partner to a mere object (to quell one’s rebellious sexual drive), Benedict speaks about an eros that tends “to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves.” However, he stresses, “for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” Through the Song of Songs he points to a type of love that is no longer tentative but sure of itself, “ahaba” akin to “agape”: “…the experience of love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice” (DCE, 6).
From this viewpoint, erotic love is ascending; Christian love – agape, coming from above – is descending. They are often presented antithetically, as though eros leads to vice and agape leads to sanctity. But on Valentine’s Day it is good to understand what Benedict XVI says, “Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift.”
For those of us whose image of God is that of the unfeeling “Prime Mover,” the emotionless “First Cause,” and the Old Bearded Man in the Clouds, Benedict then takes us through a series of biblical images from the Song of Songs, Ezekiel, Hosea and the Psalms where the image of God is that of an erotic Lover. He loves his People passionately as a spouse, and angrily condemns her infidelity as prostitution. (Imagine this wounded Lover saying the “p-word” in anger!) He loves his People intimately and so reveals to her her true worth in the Torah (She is no mere beast of burden!). He loves his unfaithful spouse relentlessly, and so cannot not forgive her: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger. I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos. 11:8-9). Benedict says, “God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice” (DCE, 10). For this reason, Benedict XVI says, “God’s eros for man is also totally agape” (ibid.)
God turned against himself due to his erotic love! Whew!
On Valentine’s day, give love. God is love. Live in him, and he loves in you.