Valentine’s Day is upon us, and stores have been overflowing with chocolate hearts, boxes of class Valentines with gummy wristbands, and stuffed teddy bears. It can be an overwhelming time for many, especially the single who long for a significant other, those grieving for lost loved ones, or even stressed mothers trying to make sure they buy enough cards for kids’ class gifts!
As with all secularized holidays our Catholic roots are overlooked, but especially with this feast day honoring St. Valentine, priest and martyr. This saint of the early days of Christianity was beheaded on February 14 for his witness to the faith, and is the patron saint of lovers. The passing of time has led to confusion regarding his identity (there are at least two St. Valentines, one of Rome and one of Terni). Chaucer’s attributing the date of February 14 to the time when birds choose their mates is historically credited with this date being linked to a celebration of love, which is one explanation for this saint being chosen as the patron of lovers.
As we celebrate our modern notion of love, we should consider if this is truly the kind of love for which St. Valentine and other martyrs gave their lives. The answer may seem obvious.
Addressing a general audience in Vatican City in March 2017, Pope Francis reminded the faithful that “we are called to love, to charity: this is our highest calling, our vocation for excellence.”
In order to love others completely and without selfish intentions, we must draw from the wellspring of Christ’s love.
“When we invite God into our hearts, allowing ourselves to be loved by him, only then can we sincerely act out the great commandment to become instruments of God’s love,” said Pope Francis. “And then, yes, we will return to appreciate the little things, simple and ordinary; and we will be able to love others as God loves them, wanting their good, that they be saints, friends of God.”
To truly love another is to want that person’s good, to put their needs above our own to serve them; not to use them to feed our own egos or to gratify our selfish desires. Do married couples and parents model this kind of self-giving love to their children? Or do they allow pride and petty disagreements to cause division, failing to offer an example of what “true love” should look like? Do Christians model this kind of love in their communities, reaching out to the less fortunate and being inclusive of the marginalized?
David Platt’s 2010 book Radical challenged readers to consider how the American dream is at odds with true Christian discipleship and how radical, Christian love calls us to abandon everything for the gospel. Platt argues that during the time of Christ, His followers truly “left it all behind” to follow Him, and asks how many of us are willing to do that today.
The truth is that we can do this in a thousand different ways each and every day. Love–true love–is an act of painful self-giving, long suffering sacrifice, bearing with the faults of others and expecting nothing in return. We don’t like to feel uncomfortable. “Love” that exists merely to meet our needs and feed our egos is not truly love; it is gratification. Jesus wants us to learn to truly love others the way He does, with all their faults, miserable habits, and sinful tendencies because that is how He loves us.
Agape Love: Dying to Self
My father died when I was just 22 years old after a long, heartbreaking battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was truly the only source of unconditional love I’ve ever known and was adored by many. His death sent shockwaves throughout our family and none of us have ever fully recovered, simply because he was the anchor: the unselfish one who loved us all with no strings attached.
He literally did nothing for himself. He raised three children that he did not bring into this world, since we were all adopted. He went to work every day to support his family, took us on summer camping trips, and made embarrassing Christmas home videos every year. When he was diagnosed with the disease that had killed his father, we didn’t know what to expect.
I had no idea at the time just how much he was suffering. He was in constant pain, but he never let on. Lung transplants were very painful at the time, and his body never fully accepted the new lung. He was never able to walk again and was always getting secondary infections and being rushed to the ER. He became diabetic. He required the use of an oxygen tank and struggled to breathe. He needed round-the-clock care.
I never once heard the man complain. He was only 48 when he received his transplant and lived for two years after. Looking back, I have no idea how he did it. He refused to stop living.
He insisted on going into work every day, in a wheelchair. He mowed the backyard with his oxygen tank strapped on the back of his lawn tractor. He made a bid for county commissioner, promising to lower everyone’s water bills and ride a motorized wheelchair to work downtown every day if elected! He practiced walking for months, as difficult as it was with his diminished lung capacity, so he could walk me down the aisle at my wedding. He was not able to do that, but he did stand briefly to dance with me at the reception.
When he died, over 700 people came to his funeral. The transplant coordinator who cared for him resigned from her job after his death because she was so devastated. Our parish priest mentioned Dad in a homily after his death, saying he never saw someone who suffered so much with such a positive attitude. He truly impacted so many.
My father was not a wealthy man. He was not famous. He was common in every sense of the word. He clipped coupons and wore old gray sweaters and told bad jokes and was about as boring as a dad could be. But when this man died, people mourned.
Because he loved us. It’s really that simple. I’ve taken that love with me through my adult life and I’ve paid it forward in countless ways.
So, as St. Mother Teresa said, if you really want to change the world, go home and love your family! As we celebrate the feast day of St. Valentine this year, may we find ways to honor those who give of themselves so selflessly that we truly understand the meaning of love. May we gaze at the cross at Christ in all His suffering and humiliation and see that He gave all He had to give.
He did it because He saw a need and met it, not counting the cost. That is true love.
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.