This Sunday is Valentine’s Day! It is a popular holiday for greeting card companies, clothing stores and chocolatiers, because it is associated with romantic love. Have you ever wondered why this is so? How did a Christian Saint (a martyr, in fact — somebody who was executed for his Christian witness) come to be known as “the guy whose day is for celebrating romantic love”?
Saint Valentine and THE WAY OF LOVE
One legend about Valentine might explain: During the reign of Emperor Claudius I, there was a shortage of soldiers. Since a man could get out of military duty by being married, the Emperor made marriage illegal, so Valentine defied this law and married couples in secret. He cut heart shapes out of parchment and gave them to the grooms to remind them of their vows of love. For this crime, Valentine was eventually arrested and beheaded.
Another legend has it that earlier, Valentine had been imprisoned by a jailer named Asterius. The two ended up discussing religion together, and Valentine attempted to convince Asterius of the truth about Jesus. Asterius brought his daughter, who was blind, before Valentine and challenged him, “if Jesus is truly the Son of God, have him heal my daughter.” Valentine prayed and God miraculously restored sight to the girl. Consequently, Asterius released the Christians who he had imprisoned, converted to the faith, and had his entire household baptized along with himself. Years later when he was awaiting execution in Rome, Valentine wrote a letter to Asterius’ daughter and signed it, “from your Valentine”.
From these and other stories we can trace many of the traditions now associated with Valentine’s Day. Yet there is something different about how love was portrayed then compared to how we see it celebrated now: If you read closely, romantic love is only a part of Valentine’s story. There are also other types of love: There is the kind Asterius had for his blind daughter which played a part in his journey to faith. There is also the love that Valentine showed to young couples by helping them get married. This love was of a sacrificial nature, and led to Valentine’s death. The legends about Valentine underscore the fact that love is not always lovey-dovey romantic love. So how many different kinds of love are there?
In his book on the subject, (called The Four Loves), C.S. Lewis explains that while in English we use only one word, the Greek language uses four different words to express love. His breakdown of love into four different kinds is useful. Here’s the TLDR version:
Through familiarity with someone, we gain an affection for one another that shows up as both a need to be loved and a need to give love. This is the love parents and children naturally have for one another.
This is the same word from which we get Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love“, and is used for the kind of love that is seen in friendships. It grows out of having things in common or doing things together.
This is the romantic love that everyone enjoys celebrating on Valentine’s Day. It is the “being in love” kind of love that makes one person special to us above all others. Not reducible to mere selfish desire, this love makes us seek what is best for the other person and leads us to delight in them.
Charity / Agápē (ἀγάπη)
This is the greatest kind of love, self-sacrificial by nature, and when it exists it does so regardless of circumstances. It is unconditional love, the kind Jesus shows to us by his death on our behalf.
THE Bible ON UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
The way the bible describes God’s love toward us, it is clear that this love is something we do not deserve or earn but it is a love that God shows unconditionally. If he held back his love from people who were sinners, then none of us would be loved. If he held it back from people who did certain kinds of sin, still none of us would be loved (James 2:10 explains, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”). Yet even while we are completely undeserving and, in human terms, unloveable, God nevertheless persists in loving us, as Romans 5:8 above states:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:8
Most earthly loves are conditional. That is to say, at some point, if you wrong me enough, I will stop loving you. Indeed, sometimes coworkers, or a parent or a child, or a girlfriend or boyfriend need to walk away from a friendship, or a toxic family, or a bad relationship. But in God’s case, no matter how bad we have been, he never cuts us off and walks away. Rather, he keeps pursuing us. The most famous bible verse for Christians is probably the clearest exposition this. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That the Creator of the Universe, the only Self-Sufficient Being, the very source of all Existence, should love us so much is indeed a marvel.That is agápē, unconditional, self-sacrificial love!