Today is St. Valentine’s Day, a favorite day among retailers. The price of flowers, particularly roses, rises to amazing heights. Jewelers hope to upsell bewildered patrons on larger and sparklier diamonds. After two years of financial difficulty, restaurants are undoubtedly hoping for a busy evening. In grocery stores and pharmacies, the busiest aisle is the greeting card aisle as last-minute purchases are made.
This day dedicated to love is strangely named after St. Valentine, although it is somewhat unclear as to which of the martyrs named Valentine is honored with this distinction. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that stories started circulating about a St. Valentine performing Christian marriages or passing love notes between jailed lovers. As one commentator has noted, “historical veracity did not count for much among medieval Christians. What they cared about were stories of miracles. . . And much like love itself, St. Valentine and his reputation as the patron saint of love are not matters of verifiable history, but faith.
What about love itself? Undoubtedly one of the most familiar scripture readings about love is found in I Corinthians 13, beginning with the 4th verse:
Love is patient and kind. It does not envy; it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Certainly, love is a feeling, but it is far more than that. It is full of action. It requires the best of us, even when that seems impossible. It remembers the good and forgets the bad. It always sees the best in others even when it is so much easier to seek out and dwell on the worst. And even in the worst of times, when we have turned our backs to the ones who love us, love does not fail. It waits, often silently and unwisely, until we realize our own foolishness.
True love lasts, even beyond the grave. All too often during our lifetimes, we encounter death. We mourn the loss of a loved one – a spouse, a child, a true friend, yes, even a pet. We are bereft. Yet we are told in the words of the Old Testament that love is enduring:
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.
Song of Songs 8: 6-7
How do we know where to find this kind of love? What does it look like?
In the early 1960’s, I was preparing for confirmation. For us, confirmation was a two-year study, every Saturday morning during the school year for two or three hours. During the first year, the associate pastor took us through the books of the Bible and other things I no longer remember. Second year was the realm of the senior pastor – it was time for the small blue “Luther’s Catechism.” By the time that May 1962 rolled around, I, like all of my colleagues, was ready for it to be over.
On one of the final Saturdays, as we prepared to be quizzed by members of the congregation, the pastor paused and said that we were going to review the past two years in a different way. If this time in class means anything, he said, it is to prepare you for your dying moment. What will you remember? What will calm you, reassure you, comfort you? My classmates all sounded so erudite; we sat in alphabetical order and when he got around to me, a “W”, it seemed like everything had been covered. So, I simply said: “God is love.” And then I was silent. There was an uncomfortable pause. “Don’t you want to say any more?” Pastor Niebling asked. “No,” I replied. “It seems to me that what I said sums it up pretty well – and it’s something I can remember when everything else is gone.”
After all of these years, “God is love” still rings true for me. It is a matter of faith. On this day when love is celebrated, we are well served not to obsess about picking out the right card or the freshest flowers or the best chocolates. Instead, we should turn our attention to the One who is faithful, stronger than death, forgets our missteps, and always showers us with love that is eternal. God demonstrated God’s love for us by giving us the embodiment of love, Christ Jesus, as well as the sign that love endures forever through the Gift of the Spirit. There is no better gift for today than that.
God is Love. And for that, we say “Thanks be to God.”