Of Love and Valentine

We are two days away from the month of February, which is itself the month in which that most Hallmark-y of holidays resides: Valentine’s Day.  Only sixteen shopping days left!  And Valentine’s Day is big business.[i]  In a recent year, Americans spent $18.2 billion on the holiday.  That comes out to $137 per person, and that includes kids!  Breaking that down, $4.3 billion is spent on jewelry.  Another $2 billion is spent on flowers.  A cool $1.7 billion is spent on candy and chocolate.  And don’t forget those Hallmark cards.  Americans purchase 190 million greeting cards for Valentine’s Day, to the tune of $1 billion.  My goodness.

Valentine’s Day was, of course, originally the Feast of St. Valentine.  Though Valentine’s Day is thoroughly secularized, since it is named for a Christian martyr and dedicated to love, it is worth our consideration. 

The hazy historical record actually mentions three separate Chistian martyrs known as Valentine, each of whom lived during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius.  Analogous to the legends of the historical St. Nicholas that evolved into our modern Santa Claus, the little we know of Valentine (or the several Valentines) informs our modern Valentine’s Day practices. 

St valentine's day Memes
There are some pretty good St. Valentine mems on the interwebs.

At least one of the historical Valentines was a priest.  When Emperor Claudius determined that single men made for more dedicated legionnaires and consequently outlawed marriage, Valentine continued to marry young lovers in secret, for which he was executed when found out.  Another of the Valentines was imprisoned after being caught helping others escape Roman capture.  This Valentine then fell in love with his jailor’s daughter, and he wrote her letters from his cell signed, “From your Valentine,” thus coining a phrase that has survived to our own day.

In a world so often marked by disdain, apathy, and hate, it is good that there is a holiday—even a crassly commercialized holiday—dedicated to love.  The question to ask is “To what kind of love is Valentine’s Day dedicated?”  The answer, of course, is romantic love.  But for Christian people that begs a second question: “Is romantic love—the love of mushy greeting cards, boxes of chocolate, and bouquets of roses—what Holy Scripture means by love?

And that question is the answer to the question rolling around in some of your heads: “Why is Barkley preaching about Valentine’s Day on January 30?  Doesn’t he know there’s a Sunday the day before Valentine’s Day?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to preach Valentine’s Day on February 13?”

You’d think, except that today, as we prepare to usher in February and with Valentine’s Day on the near horizon, the lectionary gives us 1 Corinthians 13, read at 90% of all the weddings ever (including my own), and universally regarded therefore as Holy Scripture’s poetic homage to romantic love. 

Turning Romantic Jealousy into Power - Mind Body Spirit Festival

At first glance, it may seem so.  Because those starry-eyed couples almost always choose St. Paul’s great love hymn in 1 Corinthians 13 to be read at their weddings, we assume it is a romantic love poem.  There, Paul says that, among lovers, “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not arrogant, boastful, or rude.”  But there’s a problem.   When we really think about it, romantic love is not patient.  It exists with passionate urgency.  Romantic love is not kind.  It will push everything out of its way to attain its end.  Romantic love does not, as the passage goes on to say, rejoice in truth.  Instead, it will believe anything but the truth in order to keep a romantic fantasy going.

Paul must, therefore, be talking about something other than romantic love. And indeed he is.  You see, Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth because the Corinthians bicker and fight about everything. The superficial bonds that drew them together in community have broken.  Their relationships have become one-sided, and each focuses on what is best for him, or how the others ought to fawn all over her.  They are not patient.  They are not kind.  They do not rejoice in truth.  They are boastful, arrogant, and rude.  They each claim to bring to the table gifts and graces that set them above their sisters and brothers, that make them more important and more worthy.  And they wonder why their community is dysfunctional.

To this crowd Paul writes about a different kind of love.  Paul speaks of a love that is tenacious, that endures amidst strain and pain, that perseveres in the face of challenge.  It is a love that is a daily decision, that is, as I have said elsewhere, an act of dogged will.  It is a love that gives meaning to all other gifts, because when we have it, we use those other gifts always for the building up of someone else and not for our own pride or prestige.  It is a love stronger than granite or iron, because it is forged in the very heart of God and then flows to and through God’s children. 

Close to Corinth - Response - Seattle Pacific University
The Corinthians were a dysfunctional lot.

About this love Paul writes, “If I have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it rejoices not in wrong-doing but in the truth.”

It is my joy that I can say this is the love I see most often expressed here at Christ Church Cathedral.  The character of our community is not like that of the Corinthian church.  And for us, this is necessarily so.  Christ Church is a downtown parish in the center of a sprawling urban maze.  Even before the pandemic, becoming and remaining part of this community required that daily and weekly decision, that dogged act of will.  And now, when the world starts and stops in COVID fits, nurturing membership in this community is a compounded challenge.  And yet, the Cathedral is here, and strong, and faithful.  Not fuzzily or superficially romantic is the love that binds us to one another and to this place.  The love here is of God, the powerful, enduring, sustaining, transforming love of which St. Paul speaks.

But when I look out upon the broader world, this love is sorely lacking.  Today’s world is Corinth writ-large.  Power, coercion, and self-satisfaction often masquerade as love.  Abuse, abandonment, anger, recrimination, and disdain are rampant.  It is enough almost to make one despair.  Almost, but not quite.  Because we know that relationships of love can be different.  We know that the dogged act of will is worth it.  We know what love looks like, and we—like St. Paul—can be apostles to a world that mistakes Hallmark cards and chocolate for love.

This year on the Feast of St. Valentine, let’s celebrate the love of which St. Paul sings.  Sure, it can be conveyed in a card or a gift, but it is best shared through acts of courage, attention, kindness, and care.  It is the love expressed by the historical Valentine (or Valentines!), when he made the dogged decision and took great risk to marry the faithful and free the innocent.  It is the love that is God, and which, through God’s grace, we are blessed to share.

[i] https://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/valentines-day-numbers-money-spent-flowers-candy-cards/story?id=45480956

The next day…

I have been to Cana in Galilee.  It is on the outskirts of modern-day Nazareth.  From Cana, the road winds down a hill to hit the 77 motorway toward the Sea of Galilee.  Not a whole lot to see there these days.  In Cana, our group stopped at a roadside diner.  I had falafel and a Coke.

Who knows what Cana was like two thousand years ago?  We know that Nazareth was a relatively new and very small settlement of immigrants transplanted by King Herod to shore up the tax base in his northern most—and backwoods-most—territory.  Cana was likely similar, though our Gospel text today does share with us that there was at least one resident established and affluent enough to host one heck of a wedding.

It’s a great story.  As commonly known, it is the context for the first of Jesus’ signs.  Still today, it serves as the very beginning of the Episcopal wedding liturgy, where we say that “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”  As a wedding account, it’s a realistic one, with irritable mothers, aloof sons, and furtive staff rushing around making sure everyone has a good time.  At this point in my ministry, I’ve officiated more weddings than I can count, and I’ll tell you that not much has changed in the past two millennia.

Cana of Galilee - Journey to Holy Land
Modern day Cana in Galilee

But as with all of John’s Gospel, there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  There are two levels of activity in John’s narrative, one cosmic and the other intimate.

Cosmically, to understand what’s happening here, we actually have to back up a chapter.  John’s Gospel begins with the Bible’s fourth creation story.  The first two are in Genesis, and the second is in Job, and in John 1 sacred scripture gives us one more cosmic account.  Just like Genesis, John’s first words are “In the beginning,” but unlike Genesis, here the Creator God is not alone: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” 

This creation story includes light and darkness, and it tells us that in God’s great project of creation there is intention and trajectory, that the world of which we are a part is not meaningless, that from the start the Word—the Christ—has been present throughout, shining light, giving life, and weaving grace through the whole.  John’s first chapter is grand and fantastical, and it intends to jolt us into seeing the world with new eyes.

Our Milky Way galaxy is on collision course with nearby Andromeda galaxy -  Tech Explorist

But then, like a cinematic panorama shot showing the galaxy, then quickly zooming in to the blue marble of planet earth, continent, country, city, street corner, and individual person—can you see it?—John’s Gospel shifts to specific, everyday lives, and it begins describing the world day-by-day.  Day 1 in the Gospel, John the Baptist preaches.  The Gospel then says, “The next day” John the Baptist meets Jesus.  The Gospel then says, “The next day”—that’s day 3—Jesus calls his first disciples.  At verse 43, “the next day”—day 4—Jesus calls two more.  And then we arrive at chapter 2, which begins, “On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee,” which, if you count them off, is day 7. 

It only takes a moderately attentive reader to see what John has done here.  How did the bible’s first creation story in Genesis go?  It followed God’s progress through seven days.  Once again, like Genesis, John is hearkening to the creation story. 

But there’s a difference.  In Genesis, on the seventh day, the last day of creation, the culmination of creation, God rested.  But in John, on this seventh day, something entirely different happens: There is a party!  And not just any party.  There is a wedding.  This culmination is a consummation.  After all, a wedding is, itself, the beginning of something brand new.  It is not the last day, but the first day.  Which is to say, the process of creation begins all over again.

Why does John tell the story in this way?  Why does he doubly describe creation, beginning cosmically, at a sixty-thousand-foot view, and ending up at an intimate, common, human event?

The key, I think, is that Jesus is at both.  Jesus, the Word, is present in the cosmic opera John describes, but Jesus the man is also present at the wedding.  In other words, God’s creative act is not only about forming the stars and seasons. God also creates each and every day, in us and through us.  The Irish poet Padraig O’Tuama says it best: “If the incarnation means anything, it must speak to us on our own turf.  It must enter into the clay of our landscapes, the texture of our languages, and the tensions of our cultures.”[i] 

And so, when John the Baptist preaches repentance, that’s God creating.  When Jesus welcomes disciples into relationship with him, that’s God creating.  And when the community gathers in hope and joy as two lives are joined as one, that’s God creating.  In each of these moments, and infinite others like them, God is doing something new

Wedding Feast at Cana Icon Wedding Greeting Card

Creation is cosmic, but it’s also intimate.  Creation is spectacular, but it’s also mundane.  So mundane that as we trudge through life we are liable to miss it.  How do we stay alert and attuned?  How do we notice what God is doing all the time among us and in our own lives? 

For that, the mom in the story gives us the answer.  After Mary berates Jesus just a little bit to jolt him into action, she points to Jesus and says to the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you.”  They do, and as a result they are wowed by the final act in this week of creation, as water becomes sweet wine.  The mundane becomes the miraculous, and they are a participating part of it.  Through their own cooperative, creative action, the veil is pulled back, and all experience the wonder of God.  And the next day, Jesus begins creating all over again.

Upon reflection, it makes sense that modern-day Cana is just a bend in the road, a place where one stops for a snack and a Coke.  Because it isn’t the grandeur of the place or the portent of the moment that makes the difference in the creative action of God.  John’s lesson is clear.  God is incarnate in our world, and God is creating—remaking—that world every day, in each moment, all the time.  Every morning when your eyes open, a new creation story begins.  And you are part of it.  We all are.  All we have to do is listen to the Incarnate God and do as God says, and we will become the agents of miracles.  That is an epiphany, indeed!  This year—this third year of pandemic in which the mundane seems to overpower all else—I can’t think of anything more important to hear.  All things are made through the Word.  Christ is incarnate, even here, even now.  Creation is happening.  I wonder what God will do on the next day…

[i] O’Tuama, Padraig.  In the Shelter, 47.