As Valentine's Day approaches, love is - as the song says - 'in the air'. There are various meanings of 'love', however, and perhaps the word is used too easily and liberally? After all, love for a place, a love of music, love for one's children, and love for one's partner are all somewhat different. Have we cheapened the essence of love, which - most importantly - involves putting someone or something else before ourselves?
A woman woke up and told her husband, 'I just had a dream that you gave me a pearl necklace for Valentine's Day. What do you think it means?' Her husband replied, 'You'll know tonight.' That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife. Delighted, she opened it, to find a book entitled, How to Interpret Dreams. Sadly, today, Valentine dreams are turning into nightmares at an alarming rate. We live in an age of individualism, where we are encouraged to put ourselves and our desires before everything else. Increasingly, we live in self-contained worlds of splendid isolation.
If we look back at the origins of Valentine's Day, named after St Valentine - 'the friend of lovers' - we are reminded of the true essence of love: sacrifice. Valentine, a third-century priest, disagreed with the Roman Emperor Claudius II's ban on marriage and continued to marry young lovers in secret. Once found out, Valentine was executed on the 14th of February ad 270. The priest was canonised St Valentine for sacrificing his life for the happiness of others. While it is wonderful to celebrate the gift of romantic love, it is sacrificial love, like Valentine's, that is the foundation of the 14th of February. Yet how much is sacrificial love heralded in our celebrations of Valentine's Day?
For many, Valentine's Day can be a lonely or discouraging time. In our society today, sometimes out of necessity but frequently by choice, we are isolated: we listen to music on our own, travel to work alone and maybe even live by ourselves. Through the wonder of the Internet, we have never been more connected, but we hold the world at a distance. And we can always switch off or just go offline. For those who are not in a relationship, Valentine's Day can heighten that sense of feeling alone.
At the beginning of the Bible, God says, 'It is not good for man to be alone.' We see here the heart of God, which is for us to be in relationship: relationship with each other and ultimately with him. We were made to be sociable, to interact, to interrelate. We were made to look outwards in love towards one another.
I believe that on Valentine's Day it is important to recognise and salute the love that is sacrificial and costly and that ultimately satisfies - the giving of ourselves. That can be beautifully reflected in a romantic relationship but it is often the unseen sacrificial love of a mother to a child, a friend to another friend, a soldier who lays his life down for another or a firefighter who risks his life to save a life.
As St Augustine wrote, 'God loves each one of us ... as if there were only one of us.' What an amazing thought! In the first letter of John in the New Testament, it is written, 'We love each other, because he first loved us' (1 John 4:19). Sacrificial love is born out of the understanding of God's sacrificial love for us. The greatest form of love does not centre on having affectionate feelings; it is rather to have a determined desire for good to occur to some other person and to make a decision to do good to them. Although this may sound much less dramatic than falling in love it is, in the end, of greater value.