Relics of St. Valentine of Terni at the basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin…by Dnalor_01 , Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Valentines Day is both a strange and a familiar day of celebration. Although not an official holiday, at least one greeting card company doesn’t mind if we call it a “Hallmark Holiday.” A reminder that some of us check the trademark on the card’s back to determine if the sender cares enough. For the record, I’m not one of those.
An expert in the history of the Christian church, Professor Lisa Bitel of USC Dornsife College, writes that Valentine’s Day began as a celebration of an individual, beheaded for his beliefs. This happened during the time of Roman persecution. There are actually two stories, according to Professor Bitel, of individuals with the transliterated name St. Valentine that came to the same dreadful end. Individuals are declared Saints after a careful validation of historical evidence of holy miracles. 2
But my favorite explanation of how Valentine’s Day came to be about love comes from the Roman celebration of Lupercalia that took place in mid-February. This celebration, involving the sacrifice of goats and dogs, became a sort of urban carnival. It was known for the half-naked young men who ran through Rome’s streets wearing thongs cut from the skins of newly killed goats. Legends surfaced that there was a connection between this ritual and the birth of healthy babies.
More directly connected to our version of Valentine’s Day comes out of English folklore. It was reported that certain birds choose their mate and lay eggs during February. And when author Geoffrey Chaucer compared the February feast of St. Valentinus to birds’ mating, this struck a chord with people. February became a popular month for writing love letters. Similarly, Ophelia called herself Hamlet’s valentine in Shakespeare’s famous play.
Entrepreneurs smelled a market opportunity to commercialize our need to love and be loved. An estimated 190 million valentine’s day cards are purchased each year to allow us to express our love to others who are special in our lives. Whether a teacher, the cute guy or girl that sits next to us in class, our partner, or a good friend.
Love is very much the business of the church. The bible is not only a historical account of salvation; the bible is a love story. There are stories describing God’s love for creation found throughout scripture. The bible is God’s valentine for humanity.
This helps us to realize the tremendous humility that love requires. Without humility, love is superficial. God chose to live among humans as an expression of love. And Jesus did not live like a king with power and authority. Instead, God lived among the impoverished without a bank account or any form of financial security. God’s humility makes it clear that God’s love is sincere.
Jesus expects His followers to love others with the same degree of humility that defined divine love. A humility that sees another person as loved by God without condition. We are called to see past our own biases and expectations for each other and see the other as God sees them. God calls us by our name and not by our mistakes.
We are God’s beloved children. We are Mary, Jim, Bobby, Latasha — we are the persons God created with love and attention to detail. We are not liars, cheats, whores, addicts, prostitutes — we are not the mistakes we make no more than we are the good things we accomplish.
There is a story about Jesus told by the author of Luke’s Gospel about love. Like many love stories, this one is a bit edgy (Luke 7: 36-50).
Jesus is having dinner with a local authority named Simon when a woman invites herself and sits behind Jesus. Apparently, this woman had a rather, let’s call it, a reputation. We really don’t know anything about her. Even her name is left out. What we know is the opinions of the man Jesus was visiting and the narrator of the story.
The woman brought a jar of perfume and stood behind Jesus, crying and wetting his feet with her tears. And then she dries his feet with her hair, kisses his feet, and then she poured some perfume on them.
So the homeowner is somewhat annoyed by the whole scene, or perhaps a bit envious. He says under his breath, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she lives!”
I suspect Simon was intentionally loud enough for his other guests and Jesus to hear what he said. And Jesus didn’t miss the sarcasm of his host. But Jesus didn’t confront his host with a snappy comeback. Instead, he asks his host if it would be alright to tell a story.
Two men owed money to a moneylender. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. Neither of them could pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Which one, then, will love him more?
Simon answers with reasonable logic. “I suppose,” answered Simon, “that it would be the one who was forgiven more.” “You are right,” said Jesus.
Jesus then turns toward the woman but says to Simon and his other guests, “Do you see this woman?” The truthful answer is no. Simon didn’t see the woman. It’s unlikely that any of his guests saw the woman. What Simon saw was the woman’s reputation. She was named by the mistake that Simon believed she made. Simon saw a problem and not an act of humility, love, and faith.
The truth is that millions of people have heard this story and didn’t see the woman. And millions see a person but don’t see who they are. Instead, they see what they choose to believe. Sometimes it’s the way they wear their hair, the hoodie that’s covering their head, their posture, or a myriad of other clues that hide who they are from view.
The truth be told, in our culture, it is their skin tone that speaks the loudest. This clue is so woven into our history and culture that it was lost to our consciousness generations ago. Most of us claim that we do not act on prejudice as a result of skin tone, but this is a lie. Consciously, we may desire to be unbiased, but subconsciously, race became a part of the lens through which we see the world.
Ironically, Simon wasn’t much of a host. Jesus reminded Simon that he was not given water to wash his feet when he came into Simon’s home. An essential custom of the time. Nor did Simon greet Jesus with the affection that a good host shows to a person they’re hosting. Simon did not show the humility that a good host shows their guests.
Do you see this woman?
But the woman that Simon did not see was a holy illustration of humility. She recognized that it is customary to make sure that your guest can wash their feet. She washed the feet of Jesus herself. With her own tears.
Nor did the woman simply offer Jesus a cordial handshake or superficial hug. While Simon did neither, she offered intimacy that comes from humility that can be found only within the depths of our spirit.
After helping Simon realize that his impression of the woman was mistaken, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
With this powerful statement of revelation, Jesus opens pandora’s box. According to the writer, Simon’s other guests offered their own commentary. “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” they asked.
I can’t help but compare their reaction to the sort of blowback I hear when someone offers us a lesson in our own cultural blindness. We often respond with a, “Who do you think you are?” statement of denial. It takes a lot of humility to show love to someone—a level of humility that doesn’t come naturally.
I pray that you will join us each Sunday at 10:30 am as we learn together from the successes and mistakes of Jeremiah’s community. Invite your friends to join us online or in-person.
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1 Most of the content for our series comes from Latasha Morrison, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation. Yates & Yates and Penguin Random House, 2019.
2 Lisa Bitel. “The ‘real’ St. Valentine was no patron of love.” © The Conversation, February 13, 2018.