Though Valentine’s Day is all about love and romance, it actually leaves many people out, and sets high expectations for relationships. In a society that wants everyone to partner up, many have to find ways to make peace with singlehood. The 14th of February has become hugely commercialized, all about cards, chocolates, overpriced restaurants, flowers, and whimsical romance.
Historically, although the true origin of Valentine’s Day is vague, Saint Valentine was thought to be Saint Valentine of Terni, who was martyred on the 14th of February 269 by Emperor Claudius II for preaching the gospel in Rome. He secretly married Roman soldiers, against the emperor’s wishes, to spare the husbands from war. It so happened that the date coincided with a rather brutal Roman spring festival called Lupercalia, which celebrated fertility rites for pregnancy, and included the pairing off of women with men in the form of a lottery. According to another urban legend, the name originally came from a priest that signed his love letters “from your Valentine” from jail. Lovers only began sending each other love poems after Geoffrey Chaucer romanticized it in his poem “Parliament of Foules” written in the 14th century, after which other writers, including, later, William Shakespeare, followed the tradition and the concept of Valentine’s Day became entrenched in popular culture.
So is Valentine’s Day a scam invented by poets to make lines rhyme? Why call it Valentine’s Day at all if it holds no connection to the original St Valentine? What then is love actually?
Hollywood has set the precedent for romantic love with cute romcoms. After 30 years of marriage, I can tell you that love doesn’t look like that. Love doesn’t come from poems but from moments of being challenged on a mundane issue and then laughing about how silly it was. It is not a sweet treat gift wrapped in a red velvet bow. Instead it’s putting your cold feet on your partner’s warm body in the middle of winter, or finding a cup of coffee at your bedside in the morning.
Love can be a selfless action rather than flowers and gifts, like giving me your jacket in an unexpected downpour so my hair doesn’t get wet while you get soaked. Love is doing things for me that I hate doing, like the dishes or taking out the trash. It’s doing something for one another without being asked or nagged. It’s not in the price tag of a piece of jewellery, but rather in shared T-shirts, playlists, and appetizers. It looks like lazy days in pyjamas and extravagant nights out. Love is a space to cry, complain, shout and rage. It’s not telling me to stop or change, not prescribing, just being there, hearing me, seeing me, and grounding me. Sometimes love is “sorry I can’t” and boundaries.
Don’t get me wrong- love is also in replacing that broken dishwasher and wonky washing machine. It’s in unexpected vacations and frivolous moments of chocolates and the occasional bling. Love is also when the budget says no more spending, but you find a way to replace my glitching phone. It can be a love song written and tunelessly played at a campfire.
The Old Testament immerses us in patriarchal, misogynistic unions. Then Solomon presents his passionate love poems, which are seldom preached as they tend to be seen as forbidden, unspoken topics. Paul then adds to the confusion by speaking about cultural issues of the day which modern believers seem to have held as the correct scriptural way for married couples. Right at the beginning of time, God presented a picture of union in the garden of Eden. I believe that, just as in modern culture, where we are celebrating a day that has little to do with the ancient connection or reason, we have lost the true intentions God had for two people joined together in a covenant. God created two people who were very different from each other, each with unique attributes to “help” the other. Genesis 2:18 the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
According to Anne Hamilton: “The word, “Helper”, is paraclete in Greek. It has a legal sense and it has a military sense. In a courtroom setting, it means your legal advocate; in a military setting, it means your partner. These paracletes are “submitted” to one another – they are totally committed to protecting and caring for each other”.
So, God’s original plan was for you to have a helper, someone that knows you and advocates and speaks for you. Someone who has your back and covers you, stands by your side, and shields you with their own body if you fall. Someone who pampers you and tends to your wounds after the battle. Someone who has gone through the same gruelling training and experienced similar highs and lows. Someone who knows your strengths and weaknesses and carries you at times but allows you to lead in your strengths.
Rather than imitating the brutal fertility rites of ancient days and marginalizing those who don’t have partners, would it not be better to show true love in demonstrating selfless acts towards each other, as St Valentine was selflessly willing to be martyred for? This day should imitate actual love with time spent together in celebrating the joy of being helpers for each other and highlighting the things that make us better people.