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13 February 2013

Reframing Valentine’s Day

Reframing Valentine’s Day

With the commercial machine for Valentine’s Day well and truly gearing up, Valentine’s Day promises once again to be the ultimate celebration of the ecstasy of romantic love. A day of poems, cards, flowers, passion and dinner dates. Or, then again, it may be a day that passes you by like any other.

The story goes that Valentine’s Day originates from a Roman man named Valentine who was imprisoned and eventually martyred for his Christian faith. He died on 14 February in the third century, leaving a farewell note for the jailer's daughter who had befriended him. The note was signed "from your Valentine".

Whether or not their friendship had a romantic connotation, we don’t know. But we do know that she had expressed a Christian love, the characteristic of which is described in the gospel accounts: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). Friends love at all times and have a particular stickability in times of adversity. They embody a staying power which reminds us that we are not alone, however desolate the situation.

Valentine’s Day first became associated with romantic love in the Middle Ages and we continue to market it as such – the emphases being on ‘marketing’ as well as ‘romance’. Yet, I’d like to suggest a reframing of the character of the day that is more in line with the original  story. Less exclusive, yet priceless. The emphasis on invaluable friendships. The celebration of enduring, tenacious and stubborn love that doesn’t give up.

In Marriage, a History: How Loved Conquered Marriage, historian Stephanie Coontz describes that from the Middle Ages onwards till the start of the 19th century, the word ‘love’ in diaries and letters is used more frequently in relation to neighbours, nieces and nephews and fellow believers than in relation to spouses. Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, asserts that our 20th century fascination with romance and marriage has impoverished our development of a broader array of relationships, to the point of neglect. This narrow understanding of ‘love’ is partially responsible for the loneliness experienced inside and outside of marriage.

It certainly explains the atrophy of healthy community life. In the 20th century Western world, the range of relationships have been narrowing. This erosion of the role of tribe, fellowship, extended family, community, colleagues and friendship causes isolation. And it also places a huge weight of expectation on the marriage – a weight the institution was never meant to hold, and so, it gives way. Worryingly, in an age of increasing marital breakdown the only question we ask is ‘how can we strengthen marriage?’ But that is too narrow a focus, according to Coontz. Instead, the better question is ‘how do we recover the breadth of relationships?’ Finding the answer to that question will implicitly strengthen our marriages. For we need friends – in good times and bad, married or single. The Bible portrays friendship as a rich gift and a crucial vanguard for life. After all, friends speak with a much-needed candour. Even the wounds they inflict can be trusted.

A rich relational tapestry is inherent to the Creator’s design for the wellbeing of the individual and society. The inherent incompleteness of our existence causes us to seek community in the form of marriage, family, tribe, friendship, fellowship and wider society. We are created for community, the whole colourful gamut of it.

So, we can celebrate friendship 365 days of the year. Cards, gifts, poems, hospitality, meals, candour and inflicting some crucial wounds. A way of life that is costly to the point of sacrificial. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And on 14 February? Kiss the love of your life. Give flowers to your colleague who took your workload during your illness. Send a card to your former teacher whose dogged patience got you through your exams. Buy a bottle of wine for your GP whose dedication in your family’s hour of need went far beyond the call of duty. Hang out with the neighbours who go through a sticky patch. Give some chocolates to the elderly in the nearby nursing home. Invite the homeless person for dinner – candlelight and all.

Such invaluable strands of love will reweave our communities and places of work. We can be more imaginative and generate new dynamics for a more robust, a more loving society.

by Marijke Hoek