Last year, Forbes projected that Americans would spend 19.7 billion dollars on their valentines, with the average man spending “$133.61 on gifts … compared to $62.14 for women.” Cards, candy, and an evening out were the biggest items, of course. That’s an incredible amount of money. Is the day really worth that kind of investment? According to TIME, a survey from Discover found that “of the 75 percent of survey respondents who demurred on receiving a gift, only about a quarter say they meant it, while about half would like their partner to go ahead and buy them something anyway.” For single people, The Huffington Post offers 20 ways to treat yourself on Singles Awareness Day (SAD), February 15.
However, we decide to celebrate, most of us try not to stare into the abyss of probable disappointment that we face every February. Although I have the will to love Valentine’s Day, it’s the top entry on the list of days I’d be happy to avoid, and the reason is simple: expectation. I hate Valentine’s Day with the red-hot passion of an ordinary mother who can’t meet anyone’s expectations, let alone her own.
I live in a gently fading Rust Belt town and spend my time homeschooling my offspring in a rambling house and puttering around the church where I work with my husband. I am happily married and the mother of six beautiful children. I love my kids and make every effort to make their lives pleasant by feeding and clothing them, listening to the litany of troubles that crowd their small hearts, explaining the great virtue of dental visits, and helping them construct hand-made valentines—a process that involves glitter glue, bits of paper, and sobbing when the final product looks nothing like they want it to.
My children and husband tell me almost every day that they love me, and I haven’t had to send myself flowers in a decade. And yet, by now, I’ve fallen into the category of the modern haggard mother, beating off an impending sense of isolation and the looming expectations of the people (small and large) around me. For me, Valentine’s Day looks like almost every other day and involves laundry, schoolwork, a scramble to find a babysitter, and if I’m lucky, a sticky booth near the loo at Applebee’s.
The temporal disappointments of my life, of course, are nothing compared to some. But no matter who you are, at some point you’re going to feel as if you’re left standing with a handful of dust— whether you’re disappointed in singleness, disappointed in marriage, or worse yet, disappointed in God for failing to deliver trouble-free, happy relationships. Although the history of Saint Valentine is widely contested, nonetheless the story itself offers a truthful window into how we understand these disappointments in light of Christian faith.
In the third century, the Roman Empire under Claudius II had grown vast and unmanageable. He struggled to keep hold of its boundaries, and his military was unruly. To solve this problem, he outlawed marriage, believing that his young male soldiers—unencumbered by affectionate ties to family—would ratchet up their commitment to protecting his borders. Not surprisingly, his soldiers wanted to get married anyway. Then, as the legend goes, Valentine intervened and began marrying them off to women in secret.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can keep you away from the love of God (8:38–39). Once you have flung yourself into his care—the way a mother is besotted with her baby, or a man clings to the wife of his youth—God’s love s powerful, deep, and incontrovertible. That’s why, when the emperor ordered Valentine to cease and desist on pain of death, young Valentine didn’t stop. He went first to prison, and then to death by beating and beheading. Nary a backward glance did he cast over his shoulder at the stuff of this world.
While Emperor Claudius loved himself and his empire, Valentine directed his love towards God and others, so much so that he was willing to die. These two loves are not quite the same. Love, if it is centered in the self, can lead to bitterness, a heart that’s hollowed out and brooding, and a desire to control others. In the intimacy of our relationships, these machinations of the heart turn into conflict: We jostle for what we want in the chaos of the laundry room, the car, and on the calendar.
On the other hand, love that’s grounded in the death of the self lets the other person go free. Of course, dying to the self instinctively feels like a mistake (who wants to die?) and can only occur when the bright vision of a beautiful, loving God overcomes the bitter loss of the self. What you gain in letting go, though, is beyond measure. “I have held many things in my hands,” said Martin Luther, “and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” As I face down the phalanx of children who populate my home, their disappointments rival my own, and I find consolation in Valentine’s willingness to die. It wasn’t that death had overtaken his life— it’s that God’s life had overtaken his own death. That is what martyrdom is—the willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel—and for me, that often means sacrificing my own desires for the sake of those God has given me to love. The luminous resurrection wasn’t something that only happened 2,000 years ago, rather it is a present reality in my daily life. God’s power working in me is the same power that toppled open the stone tomb, that makes the axe bearable, and that can strip away any bitterness from the myriad sacrifices of motherhood.
Every day, I wander back and forth between disappointing others and experiencing my own disappointments—not just the minor let down of a forgotten dinner reservation, but the bitter taste of my own short temper with my kids, or the sadness of looking into my beloved’s eyes and seeing that he doesn’t understand me. In these moments, I am able to die, able to let my husband go free, able to let my children be who they are. The Lord God of heaven and earth absorbed my very death in himself and lives, not just in glory, but now, in the brokenness of my heart. This kind of love—that overcomes death, beats out every rival, and soothes every disappointment—is worth celebrating on more than just one day of the year.