No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.John 15:13
Today we celebrate love in our highly visible and commercialized “Valentine’s Day.” Beyond the flowers, chocolates, and jewelry, there is a deep, underlying, beauty in the idea of celebrating love and relationship. This special day gets its name from St. Valentine of Rome, a Christian priest martyred by Emperor Claudius II in 269.
There are numerous stories about St. Valentine, from the healing of a blind girl (to whom he wrote a letter signed “Your Valentine”), to ministering to Christians persecuted in prison, to marrying couples in secret in the Roman catacombs. He became associated with “courtly love” in the middle ages and this February feast day for him possibly grew out of an earlier Roman holiday. What is generally agreed is that his loving acts as a Christian resulted in his beheading and burial on the Via Flaminia in Rome.
Meanings of Love
Love has become a word of many meanings in our current culture. We use it to indicate enjoyment: I loved that movie! Affection: I really love my dog. Desire: I love to spend time with her. And we use it to identify those we love: I love my children and my wife and my mom and my dad. Generally speaking, we intuit the various forms of love and act upon them accordingly. Love is frequently described as a feeling and therefore subject to passing: I no longer love ________, which of course means I don’t feel love anymore.
However, when we talk of love in terms of laying down our own life, we get an entirely different picture and the feeling of love gets real in a very profound way. To choose to love to such an extent as to give up your own life is loving in a very intense and sacrificial way. To love this way is to say: I love you so much, I will your good to such an extent, that I’m willing to give up everything for it.
Most of us will never be called to sacrifice our life for someone we love, thereby leaving the notion of such a gift in the realm of romantic speculation. I love you sweetie, of course I would give it all up for you! However, such sacrifice is so revered that we still honor those who made it thousands of years ago. We can imagine no greater measure of love.
The Opportunities We’re Given
Though you may not be given the opportunity to lay your life down for your love to the point of death, you will be given many opportunities to lay your self down out of love for another. What does that mean? To lay down one’s self for another is to surrender the need to be right, to win, or to receive the justice that is deserved. It is to step into another’s shoes with empathy and compassion, to admit you can understand, and to relinquish the self-regard that comes from needing to be right. To sacrifice these things is to lay down one’s self, one’s own life, out of love.
Wait a minute! Are you saying that love of this form is making myself a footstool for other people? Do you mean that to really love is to humble myself to a point of nothingness and endure the abuse sure to heaped upon my pathetic self?
No I’m not. We have many opportunities to lay our self down for others but it shouldn’t be in a sad, weak, losing, poor me, kind-of-way. Powerful sacrificial love is choosing to be courageous, empathetic, compassionate, and humble because you love another human being to the point of not having to be right and to the point of truly wanting their good. Owning such sacrificial love is letting go of our own wants and desires, killing the pride of self, and offering it up in a healing gift for the benefit of another human being. Such self-sacrifice is Divine, one of our greatest powers, and the greatest gift we can possibly give over and over again.
Our world tells us to get “ours,” “take care of #1,” “kill or be killed,” and “oh no you didn’t.” We are bombarded with the “winner takes all” message and a steady stream of media reminding us of all that we deserve and the constant need to “treat “yo’self” as much and as often as we possibly can. We need to be right. We need to get our way. We deserve to be happy, to have it all, to get our due.
A Different Kind of Love
And here, right now, this very day, so many are lonely, miserable, angry, sad, and lost. We may associate Valentine’s Day with flowers and romance, but St. Valentine was not about a box of chocolates, his message was one of sacrificial and redemptive love. Sacrificial in giving it not for your benefit and redemptive in its power as a selfless gift. The wounds we carry won’t be healed in the forced taking of our self or in self-deprecation begrudgingly given. However, in gifting our self, laying down our own desires joyfully, we see the fruits of healing come back in something fuller, more complete.
The essence of true love is to do this over and over and over again. Long lasting, loving, successful, marriages are built on the ability of the spouses to surrender self time and time again. Paradoxically, by letting go, by releasing self, you exert your greatest control, because you are choosing to give, you are choosing to rise above the small things that encumber you as you give them away. In this way, we play a long game of a different sort and it is for keeps.
The call to selfless love is not easy or obvious. However, when we stand before the mirror of the imperfections of those we love, we see ours in glorious detail. We begin to recognize that we need the same loving patience for our own selfish shortcomings. Here, we finally start to realize that in laying down our self for the other, we open the way for our own salvation. In this way, our most selfless acts ultimately become our greatest gift to self.