By Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) , via Wikimedia Commons

By Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo da Ponte) , via Wikimedia Commons

What Does It Mean to Love?

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

The feast day of St. Valentine has come upon us once again. All around us people are celebrating love. Hearts abound in cards and decorations and news stories.

But who was St. Valentine? What does he have to do with love? And what does it mean to love?

We don’t really know much about Valentine, and most of it is shrouded in legend. The best guess is that Valentinus was a 3rd century Roman priest who lived while Claudius II (‘the Cruel’) was emperor. Claudius had decided that unmarried soldiers would serve the empire best, so marriage had been outlawed for young men. Valentinus defied the emperor and continued to perform marriages in secret. His defiance was discovered, and he was executed on February 14th sometime around the year 270.

One legend indicates that Valentinus sent the first valentine greeting himself to a young woman who visited him in prison. Before his death, he wrote her a letter which he signed “From your Valentine”.

Some people believe that we commemorate this Christian martyr on this day. Others claim that the church chose February 14 to “Christianize” the pagan festival of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to the Roman god of agriculture. One of the customs of Lupercalia was that the names of young women would be written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Young men would each draw a slip; the girl whose name was chosen would be his sweetheart for the duration of the festival.

Whatever the origins, St. Valentine became increasingly popular in medieval Europe. He was associated with the customs of “courtly love”, in which nobles and knights would express their chivalrous love and service for their courtly lady.

By the mid 18th century, it had become a widespread practice to send love letters and small tokens of affection. The day became associated with lovers. In the 21st century, the Greeting Card Association estimates that a billion valentine cards are sent each year.

I still remember receiving a card in grade school: “Roses are red / Violets are blue; / Will you love me? / Coz I sure love you.” I never found out who sent it, and it remains one of those little fun mysteries of life.

What does it mean to love? I have thought about this and preached about it many times, and there are always greater depths to plumb.

As a Christian, I believe that love describes the centre of who God is, and how God calls me and others to live. As I see it, the one who reveals love most fully is Jesus. I also believe that love has many different forms. It’s not just helping the helpless. It’s not just about giving oneself for the sake of others. It’s not just romantic love. All of these are important, but none of these are enough in themselves. It is all of these, and so much more.

We use the word “love” in many different ways in our culture: I love roses. I love my children or my parents. I love helping out. I love my spouse, my partner. God loves creation, and I love God in return. In each case, the word means something quite different.

I love (there’s that word again) the way Thomas Jay Oord defines love: “To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.”

I notice three things in Oord’s interpretation.

Firstly, love is not so much a feeling. Now, I don’t have anything against feelings. We all have them, and since they play a major role in nearly every decision we make, it’s good to be in touch with our feelings. But oftentimes, love requires us to act for good despite how we feel. We may feel hatred or disgust or indifference toward someone, for example — but we are still called to choose to love our neighbour. Love, therefore, is an act.

Secondly, love involves a response. We are affected by our environment, by our own individual stories, by our own culture, by the situation we find ourselves in, by our bodies, and so much more. We interact with each other and with all of creation. We are interdependent. In the famous poem written in 1624 by John Donne, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; / … any man’s death diminishes me, / because I am involved in mankind.”

We all belong to many different communities, including the human community of citizens in a city, a province, a nation. Our actions affect others. Indeed, not a single one of us is self sufficient. We rely and depend on each other. We are deeply relational beings, and when we love, we do so in relational response.

Thirdly, love’s purpose is to promote overall well–being. Love aims to do good. Love intends to make life more whole for all with whom we share this beautiful blue planet.

There are many synonyms for this kind of well–being: blessedness, flourishing, abundant life, wholeness, shalom, the good life. They all point to a sense of wholeness in our physical, mental, social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions.

For me, this loving way of life finds its origin in God. I choose to love as a response. I choose to try and promote this sense of well–being and wholeness. It stems from my relationship with the Creator and reaches out to all my other relationships in this world.

I don’t always succeed. I am not always loving. I am, after all, a flawed human being. But the deep goal of my life is to live in loving ways and to make loving choices.

Valentine’s Day helps me remember this important and life–giving gift of love.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook