This week we celebrate Valentine’s Day. A day filled to the brim with a myriad of reactions. Joy, gratitude, loneliness, solitude, togetherness, happiness, grief, longing, missing, rejoicing, disappointing, and exceeding expectations. These are just a few reactions people experience every February 14th. Some make a big deal of the day, others let it pass without fanfare. Flowers are delivered and notes are written, in other cases mailboxes remain empty.
The history of Valentine’s Day, which Christian saint it is associated with, and how we got to where we are today is covered in countless articles and historical writings to which I invite you to turn. Regardless of differing perspectives, however, the day now is most often associated with love.
Our Christian tradition and scripture itself reveals that love is not unidimensional, that in fact there are a variety of kinds of love, e.g., brotherly, sexual, etc. But perhaps most importantly, we learn in scripture that God is love and it is such love that we are called to live by.
My dad, were he living, would have celebrated his 101st birthday in January. My mother, her 98th in the same month if she was still with us. They celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary before my dad’s death. Over time, my mom shared notes she had written about all kinds of topics, including a love letter she wrote my dad long ago. I am sure she would not mind me sharing part of it.
Here is part of what she wrote to my dad one day.
“Dearest Peter. This is an I love you note. In it, I want to tell you something I learned today. Love is as sacred as two people make it. It is as beautiful only as they allow it to be beautiful. It is as Godlike as they wish it. The word love is often misused and hence the world in general gets a very rough and uncouth idea of what it is. Love is the unselfish gift of one person’s self to another person. Unselfish is the important part of love – only unselfish love can be complete and permanent. Neither you nor I yet has completely unselfish love for the other. Do not be shocked for I don’t believe that we can attain such love until we reach the culmination (in other words eternal life – Robert’s comment). But in our desire and striving for it we lift ourselves above ordinary love.”
My mom’s letter to my dad continues at some length in which she gets into different kinds of love needed for a marriage. But she understood something about the nature of love which applies to all of us across relationships and circumstances. That is, the love of God, the love to which God calls us in our relationships with others, must be based on unselfishness.
Unselfish love is the bar by which we are to approach our daily lives in terms of how we act, think, speak, and relate to everyone around us. Certainly other kinds of love, eros, for example, are to be reserved for committed relationships, but unselfish love is the kind of love to which Christ calls us.
As Michael Curry says, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is selfishness.” Our God is a selfless God. It is why God created everything there is and why God came among us as Jesus. And as we are made in the image of God, love, selfless love is what we are to strive for, however imperfectly, day in and day out.
I invite you to join me in thinking and praying about the unselfish nature of love. To see what is happening in our culture and this country through such love. To look at ourselves in the mirror through such a lens. And while we will never attain unselfish love on this side of eternal life, it is clear the more we strive for it and desire it, the more such love will characterize our relationship with God, others, and ourselves.