If the only thing you’re celebrating on Valentines Day is romantic love you’re missing out.
On the contrary, if you reject Valentines Day because it’s a Hallmark holiday, you’re missing out. The gift giving sweetness (too sweet?) of Valentines Day is a modern homage of something quite old, indeed original; love.
The first commercial production of the Valentine card in America was a work of art, made of imported lace and delicate paper floral by artist Esther Howland in the 1840’s. Hallmark wasn’t founded until 1910. The etymology of the word holiday derives from the Old English word that means holy day. In the fourth century AD there were several patron saints known as Valentine or Valentinus. Their stories vary but the common theme is rebellion against Roman oppression for the sake of marriage. The Christian church appropriated a pagan feast holiday in February known as Lupercalia, which was a festival for the Roman God of agriculture (fertility). We had marriage and fertility, the link of Valentine’s Day to love didn’t happen until the Middle Ages. Romanticism beckoned in our obsession with sentimental love. The kind of love, as C.S. Lewis describes, in which “we shall not have to do anything: only let affection pour over us like a warm bath and all, it is implied, will be well.” All the loves can be exploited in this shallow way. It is our labor to find a good balance of the loves. Each love is not self sufficient.
The pagan Greeks and later the Christian Greeks had a nuanced view of love. There is Storge pronounced store-gay (a grown affection or fondness), Eros (romantic love) and Philia (brotherly or friendship love). These are the loves that are natural to man. Agape pronounced ah-gah-peh (covenant love or Christian love) is a divine love from God. Eros was seen as an irrational, dangerous kind of love that could possess you and rob you of your senses. That people hope to fall ‘madly’ in love is surviving evidence of this. Erotic love is a hunger, a need that drives us toward satisfaction. But Eros dies precisely because it is a power born of need, when the need is satisfied Eros dies. I believe our culture has neutered love with its myopic view towards Eros. There is an undervaluing of the other robust forms of love in our life that when directed, in concert toward goodness, fulfill something close to true love. While our Western culture has become fixated on sex, sexiness and sexuality it has become ignorant of true love.
Storge describes a fondness one has for an old sweater or your childhood dog or an elderly man you see every morning at the coffee shop. You are strangers but his mere presence has incubated a comfort, a familiarity. A parents affection for a child straddles this love, this love and Philia. For example, a parent has instinctual affection for their child, they clothe him and nurture him but they also behave honorably for him so that he may mimic good behavior. Your child, who starts out a stranger that you nevertheless are fond of, grows through your rearing and eventually, upon adulthood, becomes your friend. This shows the transformation from Storge to Philia.
Examples of Philia love are the relationships between a parent and child, friendships, ally cities/states/tribes, military troops, teachers and students. The purpose of the Philia type of love is to cultivate virtue in one’s life as his life relates to another’s for a common goal. Unlike Storge, Philia love is mutual. Philia is the highest form of love that can emanate from Man. Philia, Storge and even Eros are accidental or coincidental, you find yourself in this relationship just as a child finds himself with his parents, or you find yourself a new friend or a lover because of proximity. Had you not gone to that college or joined that group or gotten that job, your paths would not have crossed. While Agape is a deliberate love, you were chosen and you choose to love steadfastly.
Words such as philanthropy (generosity to Mankind), philanderer (a man flirtatious with his affections), philharmonic (lovely harmonies), philosopher (lover of wisdom), Philadelphia (brotherly love) come from the root Philo.
Examples of Agape love are the relationship between spouses and the relationship between God and Man. John 3:16 talks of Agape love. In this verse, “For God so loved the world”, the Greek word for love is agapao. Agape love is a self sacrificial love. This type of love is the highest form of love known to Mankind. This type of love can only emanate from God. Marriage is a holy covenant that manifests Agape love. This is a kind of love that loves another regardless of what they may receive. Unlike Philia love that acts virtuous in search of virtue in return, Agape love sacrificially gives, no matter if the person deserves it or returns it, because it is good. ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love does not boast, it is not arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in failures but rejoices in truth, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’. This old scripture isn’t simply a sentiment. It is a faithful love, Agape love. It is no wonder this love is not natural to man, this love is divine.
One of the greatest valentines I’ve given in my 33 year old life wasn’t given in the spirit of romantic love. It was the simple gesture of giving flowers to an important woman in my life, my mother. My mother was an excellent teacher, parent and supporter. Her life has had deprivation, loneliness and disappointment but she loves me sacrificially. She did her best to raise me right. She is paradoxically virtuous and fallible, brave and human. She gives me a charitable and selfless love and that means more to me than the quickening pulse of romance. How long do the chemical reactions of the body last? But selfless love that echos heaven, that is some love.
The gift of the flowers lit up her day, as she had never had flowers delivered to her in the 70 years of her life. In fact, the deliveryman stood there in her open doorway with the flowers and she insisted he must have the wrong house. When he said, “well aren’t you so and so,” she realized the flowers were just where they were supposed to be. I think the shock of it all; delivered flowers, that someone thought of her, that an ordinary day became extraordinary really touched her heart. I had no idea she would enjoy the gift, much less be elated. That was a special Valentines Day!
It’s a shame that our fixation on romantic love deprives us of the other expressions of love that are so precious. I’ll try to do my best to cherish them all.