I’ve done the Valentine’s Day thing in the past. And with two school-age kids, I still make the annual pilgrimage to the card and candy aisles in the grocery store to buy sufficiently benign greetings for them to hand out to every kid in their class, whether they like them or not.
But my wife, Amy, and I don’t do Valentine’s Day. In fact, we don’t even do Christmas anymore, in the way the culture tells us we should, at least. We’ve stopped buying presents, cards, and other trinkets for each other on these obligatory days, opting instead to surprise each other with gifts or other gestures of affection throughout the year.
One of my biggest objections to Valentine’s Day came from a friend recently who was commenting about the coming date. She was excited, she said, because her husband “always gets me something good.” Nothing about spending time together. Nothing about love for one another. Nothing about doing anything for him. She was excited to get something cool.
I know I’m sounding a little crusty and cynical right now, and if couples choose to observe such days with the exchange of gifts or a night out, I hope they do it joyfully and without any sense of obligation. But the “Hallmark holiday” mentality in our society has swallowed the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to reducing love down to a materialistic, forced transaction.
Yes, Valentine’s Day is about love, but the kind of selfless, dangerous sacrificial love it recognizes is trivialized by lacy cards and chocolates. Though there’s disagreement about which priest the day venerates exactly, the legends stretch back to the Roman rule of Claudius II, some 1,750 years ago.
In one version of the story, a leader in the young, dissident Christian movement continued to marry couples with a Christian ceremony, despite it being prohibited under Roman law. In another version, a priest named Valentius healed a local Roman judge’s blind daughter, causing the judge to convert to Christianity. He later got in hot water for continuing to preach the gospel, and ultimately, was called to the court of Claudius II. All was still copacetic until he tried to convert Clauidus to Christianity.
Regardless of which story you choose to embrace, the final results were violent and deadly for the priest in question. Both died for doing what they believed was right, for living out their Christian faith in the face of fiercely violent Roman oppression. And like Jesus, they responded to such fearsome oppression with love.
And now we drag ourselves to the drugstore late on the night of Feb. 13, blearily scanning the shelves for something that will suffice to keep our significant other from scolding us for our thoughtlessness. But even for those who go to greater lengths to celebrate with a romantic dinner, expensive jewelry or the like, it’s a sign that, as a culture, we’ve missed the point.
Romantic love is a feeling; Christian love is a committed practice, and ongoing, daily discipline. Romantic love is exciting but fleeting; Christian love is backbreaking and requires much more of us than most of us are willing to give. Romantic love practically demands an equal response from the object of our affection; Christian loves gives itself away freely and fully, regardless of the inevitable consequences for the giver.
There is a place in our world for romantic love. I still enjoy taking Amy out on dates, buying her pretty things, and taking her away for a grown-up weekend now and then. But to conflate this with the kind of selfless, radical love to which we’re called as followers of Jesus, and which these martyred saints of the faith embodied, is like sticking a bow on a broken heart and calling it fixed.
Christians have to be better at love than this if we’re ever going to have hope of realizing the inspired Kingdom Vision toward which Jesus is calling us. And heart-shaped chocolates don’t get us any closer.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus . His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date .