Roses, Chocolate, and Sacrifice: A Valentine's Day Reflection

Photo: giacomo.nodari, Flickr C.C.In an effort at full disclosure, I must confess that I like Hallmark and Lifetime movies. Somewhere in Time and Murphy's Romance are among my favorite films. I enjoy observing the challenges of romance, of finding a true love, and the hoped for joys of life ever after. But, as a parent, grandparent, and husband of over thirty-two years, I also know that love is challenging work, inviting a person to the hard work of self-awareness, sacrifice, patience, and commitment through all the seasons, even the difficult and painful seasons of life.

Though we might romanticize the words of 1 Corinthians 13—"love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth"—I am sure that the apostle Paul lifts up these virtues up precisely because they are so difficult to embody and must be lived out one moment at a time in an ongoing intimate relationship or community of faith.

There may be good reason that this romantic holiday is connected with the name Valentine. While there is no certainty about the origins of Valentine's Day, martyrdom seems to be a common thread in identifying the original Valentine. This, I suspect, is no accident: sacrifice is at the heart of life and certainly the heart of any committed romantic or spiritual relationship. When I do pre-marital counseling, I always remind couples that they are making a commitment for a future that is unknown to them. The traditional vows—"for better for worse, for richer for poor, in sickness and health"—encompass metaphorically all the seasons of life. Every good relationship, as C.S. Lewis notes in A Grief Observed, involves the grief of separation when one partner dies.

A young woman marries only to face her new husband's cancer a few months after their wedding day. A middle-aged man marries only to face his wife's Alzheimer's disease in less than a decade. While we can affirm Robert Browning's sentiments—"grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made"—having witnessed many elderly couples struggle with health, home, and finances, growing old together is challenging as well as blissful. Still, I am reminded of the sacrifice of love, of a 90-year-old African American man who visits daily a wife who no longer knows him. I only hope that I will be as worthy of love and its sacrifices as that faithful husband if my wife Kate and I are blessed with decades of marriage ahead.

Sacrifice is at the heart of life and love. While I am not a fan of traditional theories that claim that Christ had to die for our sins to make it possible for God to forgive erring humankind, I believe that sacrifice is essential to divinity and humanity alike. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes God as the "fellow sufferer who understands." Jesus felt the pain of loving, and it led him to pronounce forgiveness on those who crucified him.

Sacrifice is part of a healthy relationship and part of this sacrifice involves what I call the "agnosticism of love," our letting go of knowing what is best for ourselves and our beloved. The apostle Paul puts it this way: "We see in a mirror dimly." In sacrificing knowledge of what is best for another from our perspective, we can experience the radical acceptance that enables us and our beloved to embody our unique gifts as persons and life companions. This is "the space in our togetherness," described by the poet Kahlil Gibran. It is also the gift of hearing another into speech, affirmed by feminist theologian Nelle Morton. When we recognize what we don't know, and allow life to unfold creatively, we and those we love find space to breath, grow, and venture toward new horizons of self-awareness and love.

So, on Valentine's Day, find a beautiful card, share roses or chocolates, go to a romantic movie and enjoy dinner together with those you love. But remember that a truly lasting and growing love includes sacrifice, letting go, radical acceptance, and creative intentionality, along with champagne and chocolates. Blessings on your relationships—may they bring all healing, growth, and creativity as you seek together to be God's companions in healing the world.