No sooner were the final markdowns put on leftover Christmas merchandise than bright red satin hearts lined the shelves to encourage a romantic Valentine’s Day. Actually, of course, it is Saint Valentine’s Day.
While there is some question about who St. Valentine was since three early martyrs shared the name, the best guess is that Valentinus was a priest in Rome around AD 270. One story says that the emperor, Claudius II, believed that single men made the best soldiers and so he forbade weddings. Valentinus performed weddings for Christian couples anyway in defiance of the emperor. He was arrested and imprisoned. As a prisoner he won the emperor’s favor until he attempted to convert Claudius to faith in Christ. His personal evangelism proved fatal. Claudius had Valentinus killed on February 14.
I know that February 14 is no longer St. Valentine’s Day on the church calendar. Instead we remember Saints Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavic people. As someone of Russian descent, I appreciate Cyril and Methodius bringing the Gospel to my ancestors. At the same time, I like the idea of a saint who is associated with romantic love since, old fashioned thinker that I am, I associate romantic love with a man and a woman in a lifelong marriage.
That association between love and marriage is, in large measure, a Christian invention. According to Carrie Miles in her book The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World,“Greco-Roman marriage was mostly a familial alliance designed to produce legitimate heirs, and concerns about power and family honor pervade every aspect of it.”
Marriage was more an economic, than a personal arrangement. Deals were struck between fathers giving brides in their early teens to men in their twenties or thirties. And while a wife might even have affection for her husband, everyone knew that her first allegiance was to her father’s family, not her husband’s. An element of suspicion and distrust pervaded most marriages.
The Christian teaching that husbands and wives should, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” that wives were to respect their husbands and husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificial commitment (Ephesians 5:21-33) was wildly radical and all the more so given the reason behind those injunctions.
While marriage is important because it provides companionship, an outlet for sexuality, and a setting for procreation and rearing children, St. Paul made it clear that marriage is preeminently a picture of the love and fidelity between God and his people.
“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).
In the text, St. Paul so intermingles ideas about Christ and his Church with ideas about husbands and wives that it is difficult to pull the two topics apart. I suspect that this was precisely what the apostle intended. In his mind, formed as it was by the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage between a man and a woman tells a truth about God and his people. A particular marriage may tell the truth well or poorly, but every marriage tells the story.
The Book of Common Prayer wedding ceremony begins by reminding the couple and the congregation, “[Marriage] signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church….” Nothing more important or profound can be said about marriage. Just as each human is made in the image of God, every marriage is made in the image of God’s faithfulness to his people. Small wonder that the Prayer Book goes on to say that marriage is “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”
There are times when we all wonder whether or not God is faithful. We may believe that he has made a covenant with us that is sealed by the blood of Christ shed on the cross, but we doubt. In marriage, we have a picture of God’s covenant faithfulness in the covenant faithfulness of husbands and wives. Their love and fidelity—inconsistent and imperfect as they may be—are an icon for the rest of us of God’s perfect love and fidelity.
Marriage, however, has fallen on hard times and needs to be rescued—first of all in the Church. God’s people need to be the bright spots in a declining marriage culture and too often, we are not. Renewal begins as we understand and begin to live out the high calling of Christian marriage.
And while that is more than hearts, flowers, and chocolate, my experience over 31 years of marriage leads me to believe that hearts, flowers, and chocolate never hurt.
Published February 14, 2009
Jim Tonkowich is the President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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