This meditation was originally written to be shared at a dinner hosted by my pastor and his wife and daughters on Valentine’s Day. They invited a few single people from the church over to celebrate to the love we share together. While I think even my congregation might do more for single people - and especially those who are older and single (I write as just a 24 year old); but my experience at New City Fellowship had been richly blessed by God.
You don’t have to look past the varied spellings and grammatical parsings of the word “Valentine” to see how its meaning has become obscured today. And probably a plethora of journalists yearly take advantage of the strange holiday as occasion to peer into the murky heritage of the midwinter celebration. Not to mention the annual posts throughout the Christian blogosphere on all the major sites - Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition - and so many little ones about a valentine from Jesus for singles. But I am undeterred in taking this day as an opportunity to think some about singleness and love.
There are at least three canonized Saint Valentines, each one of them said to have been martyred. The most prevalent traditions refer to the Valentine who lived under the oppressive Emperor Claudius. Some rumor that his attempts to proselytize the anti-Christian emperor resulted in his death. But Claudius is also said to have forbidden most marriages among young men in the Empire, since he found that single bachelors made better soldiers. So other traditions teach that Valentine championed love in a despotic empire by secretly marrying young Christian men and women - hence the connection to a day of romance.
The celebration of Valentine’s feast didn’t come until long after his martyrdom, and its place in the middle of the month is often simultaneously credited to a holiday replacing the Roman fertility festival Lupercalia and also to the day when it was believed that bird began mating. Other traditions about Valentine have him writing his own “Valentine’s cards” from a jail cell to the jailer’s daughter, with whom he was enamored. The gifting of Valentine’s cards dates back at least to the Middle Ages, when friends and lovers would give each other tokens of their love; and the giving of mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards dates even back to Victorian England.
So of course the Christianized celebration of fertility and love has been warmly welcomed even in our contemporary American setting, along with cultural tropes about men making spirited attempts to romance their beloved - or forgetting to do anything, to their great public humiliation. And why shouldn’t love like this be celebrated? Romance is a dear gift from God that reminds us of how God - someone totally distinct from His creation, as men and women are so distinct from each other - pursues His creation and longs for full communion with it, and especially with his children, made in His image.
At this point the average Christian Valentine’s Day blog post might bemoan the plight of singles in society - and even in the Church! - who suffer, lonely and bitter and left out, on the holiday with its obscure history.
And while I think this complaint is well-justified in the Evangelical Church overall, I find myself having difficulty to make it the complaint of my own personal experience. And it’s love feasts like this one that are why. In my time at New City, I have consistently and increasingly become aware of what it means to be a part of God’s family. In the most recent episode of my life, whereby I have found myself driving an unreliable car and even getting in an accident in that unreliable car, I was shocked and even shamed to find that several members of my family here had raised almost $3000 for me to work on my car situation. I say shamed because I have often struggled to believe that I am loved, or at least really liked - and this most of all by God. But here it is, incontrovertible proof that God and His family really love me.
Still, I have felt at times that some people in my family don’t get me. I don’t let this grow into a need to be understood by everyone, nor let it overshadow the ways God shows He is the Living One who sees me and the High Priest who really gets it, and the ways He does that through my friends. I find a lot of people assuming that my singleness is either a temporary holding pen, or, upon discovering that I am same-sex attracted, an unfortunate or joyless fate.
But last summer I was shown clearly for the first time the theological significance of singleness. Scripture often draws attention to the theological significance of marriage - primarily, that it demonstrates the love of the Creator for His creation, of God for His people. Christians are very familiar with metaphors of a groom pursuing his bride; but I find few remembering the value and theological significance of singleness - and even those that admit it’s there don’t always identify it, don’t always show its beauty.
Jesus and Paul both demonstrated what might be called a preference for singleness - not that it’s a greater or more difficult calling than marriage. But with singleness is a wholehearted devotion that Paul says is just not the same for the married person. But that gets into the practical significance of singleness, which people are more easily able to identify. “Oh yeah, singles can give all their money and time away freely - and they should!” Paul’s down with that; but he also points to the meaning and beauty of singleness. This is someone whose authority to believe, live, and share the gospel can be traced to nothing but the Spirit of God. This is someone who cannot find their identity as a spouse or parent; their life and identity and authority come only from God. And single people are living according to the pattern of the new creation already, right now - for there is no marriage in heaven! Why would we, on that day, need a picture of God when we have Him in total unhindered communion, face to face?
And singleness is a deceptive term. Because God doesn’t call anyone to be single. He calls some not to have sex, to be celibate. But He is not cheating these people out of love, or out of relationships. Jesus didn’t think that marital bliss or consummate romance in itself was the height of love; He said that no one has a greater love than the one who lays down their life for their friend. Friendship, self-sacrificial friendship, is the greatest love. The love that the eternal, perfect, holy, and beautiful God gave for us struggling and sinful little creatures. The love that dignified us and didn’t even stop at calling us “servants,” but friends, brothers, and sisters. The love we have from God is not erotic, although He gave the erotic as an image pointing to the self-giving love He has for us. So if the love we have from Him is not erotic, how can the celibate say that they are missing out? As Isaiah wrote, “Let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.” Better!
So we’re not missing out. But there is still sacrifice. Sacrifice of desire. Sacrifice for friends. It is the substance of Jesus’ life. We remember the way Jesus resisted temptation and suffered as He did on Ash Wednesday, which just happens to fall on Valentine’s Day 2018, this very day. A day in which we celebrate love and a day in which we consider sacrifice and the season of Lent. I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Maybe Emperor Claudius had a point about single men being better soldiers - look at Jesus and Paul. But our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and our weapons are not the weapons of men. We are armed with love, and we are well supplied. God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and poured it without measure. God wants us to see that the love He has given us is enough, and that it is our life. Jesus is all that we need. But in His kindness and beautiful creativity, He has also given us His family as the conduit of His love. The blood of Jesus runs thick in our family, and I am grateful that I really have no reason to complain this Valentine’s Day, not as a single or a same-sex attracted believer or for any other reason, because I am surrounded by the fullness of God’s love which surpasses our understanding. Thanks for loving us and hosting us this evening.