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St. Valentine’s Day

February 9, 2014

If I had been hit in the head with a hammer, I could not have been any more smitten.  I first saw Clare across the crowded dining hall at Furman University.  We were both sophomores in the middle of first semester exams.  The study break set up by student government offered coffee, hot chocolate, and doughnuts.

I went for the food.

I found Clare.

I suppose you could say it was love at first sight.  Knowing immediately that I wanted to go out with Clare, I called several times to ask for a date.  Each time I phoned, she already had plans.

Finally, I asked, “How far ahead do I have to call in order to get a date with you?”

“Why don’t you ask me to go out the following Saturday?”

“How about Saturday after next? Would that work for you?”

“Yes,” she answered.

When we finally went out for supper and a movie, her beautiful green eyes captivated me.  I suppose you could say it really was love at first sight.

Some believe that love at first sight is a myth.  Recent studies by scientists have shown that a small area of the brain responds differently to that one special person.  Deep within our gray matter, neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, are activated.  This reaction creates a state of euphoria that corresponds to the feeling of love at first sight.

In ancient Roman mythology, Juno was identified as the goddess of love and marriage.  Her feast day was celebrated on February 15.  Each year the Romans conducted a three-day party called Lupercalia, which was, in essence, an early version of the “Dating Game.”  Eligible young men and women, who were single but old enough to be married, gathered for the celebration, complete with plenty of food, wine, and the inevitable matchmaking.

Couples brought together during Lupercalia were often struck by love at first sight.  The Romans believed that fluttering invisibly in their midst was the lesser god Cupid who fired his arrows indiscriminately.  They thought that an unsuspecting subject struck by Cupid’s arrow would fall in love with the next person who came into view.  I suppose it would be a little like being hit in the head with a hammer or being love struck in the Furman dining hall. Interestingly, marriages often resulted from the matchmaking of Juno’s feast.

This year Clare and I will celebrate our forty-eighth wedding anniversary. We were married on a hot, humid summer day at the Methodist Church in Leesville, South Carolina.  My three brothers and Clare’s brother, Ben, were the groomsmen.

The wedding went along as we had rehearsed.  I said my vows.  The minister asked Clare to repeat her vows.  Before she could respond, there was a loud crash!

Clare’s brother, Ben, had been sick with a fever all night.  He had told no one.  Standing next to a bank of candles in that very warm church, Ben fainted.  His mouth hit the altar rail, knocking out a front tooth. Blood gushed everywhere. My brothers picked up his limp body and hauled him, with his arms and legs dangling, out of the sanctuary.  Clare’s dad jumped from his seat and went out with his wounded son.  After about five minutes, the father of the bride returned.  Clare, shaken by the entire episode, spoke her vows to me.

I think that Clare had an advantage. When she repeated “for better or worse,” she at least had an inkling about what that meant.

In Rome during the time of the persecutions under Claudius, a young Christian priest named Valentine often visited those who were in prison, giving them comfort and consolation.  His kindness was motivated, not by romantic love, but by deeper love.  His desire as a priest was to remind those suffering that God is faithful in every circumstance.  Valentine demonstrated the love of God that never fails.

The Romans arrested Valentine when they learned that he violated the law by performing marriages for Christian couples.  On February 14, 269 A.D., during the Feast of Lupercalia, Valentine was martyred.  He was beheaded on the altar of the goddess Juno.  Later canonized by the church, he became known as St. Valentine.

Over the years the love that Clare and I share has grown into love that exceeds that first infatuation. It is a love that is deeply committed.

After nearly forty-eight years of marriage we understand what our vows meant on that summer day in a Methodist church in Leesville, South Carolina. We have had many moments of great joy as well as times of deep sorrow. Through it all we have experienced what I often include in the prayer when I officiate at a wedding: “May the love that they share as husband and wife multiply their joy and divide their sorrow.”

That is the way marriage has been for us. That is the love that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day, on our anniversary, and on every day that we have together.

St. Valentine’s Day in our culture has become a time to express romantic love with chocolate, flowers, and heart-shaped cards.  I encourage people in love to continue that tradition. However, by all rights, February 14 ought also to be a time to express a much deeper love, love for all of the children of God.

One of the special joys in recent years for Clare and me has been to be with our grandchildren. We now share joy in cradling our infant grandchildren in our arms, stretching out on the floor to play with our preschoolers, sitting with a grandchild and reading a book, and picking up an old guitar to sing a song together. Is there anything that warms our hearts and stirs us to love like holding a little baby or delighting in the childlike philosophy of our little professors?  For me, looking into their faces has been another experience of love at first sight.

When I am with our adult children and our grandchildren, I feel the same kind of committed love that I imagine God feels for each of us. He created us and brought us into the world, forming us in His image.

 Red, yellow, black, and white,
We are all precious in God’s sight.

The love of God is love at first sight. Whether we are married or not, that divine love is worth celebrating on St. Valentine’s Day.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2014
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