February is in many ways a transitional month. The holidays are now part of the past and we naturally look to something to engage us. We are blessed in southern Florida with very comfortable weather during the winter months and do not experience the doldrums that the cold and wintry weather can bring to other parts of our country. However, we still look forward to something that helps us appreciate the many gifts and joys of life. Sometimes, the month of February brings with it Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent but that is not the case this year. What always fills February with a change of pace is Valentine's Day. In fact, Valentine's Day has been anticipated, through promotions and advertising, almost immediately after Christmas. We can say that Valentine’s Day is truly at the heart of February.
Valentine's Day in many ways goes to the heart of what is essential to being human. It is that day when we remind our loved ones of how much we care about them and we are reminded of how much they care for us. Its history is associated with St. Valentine, a martyr of the third century, who sent from his imprisonment correspondence in notes signed, "From your Valentine." As we express our love and affection for others, we are reminded how essential that love and affection is for each and every one of us. God created us in His image and likeness in order that we might receive His love and reciprocate that love to Him and to each other. The very heart of who we are is as simple and profound as that. Valentine's Day brings us all, no matter what our age or state of life may be, to that reality. Truly, we can say that Valentine's Day is an expression of the very heart of the matter!
It is interesting to note that Pope Francis makes direct reference to Valentine's Day in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love. He expresses that this essential preparation is for a couple to be united in the bond of marriage. He states that how this preparation continues even after the marriage is celebrated and precedes the marriage from the time of birth. In this context, he emphasizes that we should not underestimate the pastoral value of traditional religious practices. Here he states, "To give just one example: I think of St. Valentine's Day; in some countries, commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of the celebration than we are in the Church." Valentine's Day reminds us of the centrality of love as the heart of our lives.
The primary Valentine we receive is from God Himself. God sends us messages of His love each and every moment of our lives. We are never alone but it is essential for us to open our hearts to the love of God as He speaks to us in so many different ways. One of the most essential ways God speaks to us is through His word in the Scriptures. The Scriptures give us continual messages from God of His love for us. The Old and New Testaments are truly an account of God's love expressed in words in a concrete manner. From the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, we have a written Valentine from God expressing His love for each one of us.
In my previous column, I reflected upon the retreat which Pope Francis' personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan Capuchin, conducted for all of the bishops of the United States at the beginning of January. He spoke very powerfully on the particular messages that God gives to us in His inspired word of the Scriptures. He reminded us continually to be open to this word and to be touched by the actual presence of God's love that it conveys. He said, "God has in His heart a special word for any and every occasion and He never fails to reveal that word. … Initially, there is nothing more than an almost imperceptible change of heart: a little light that sparks in your mind, a word from the Bible that catches your attention and sheds light on the situation. It may seem like only a tiny seed, but it contains everything we need, even thunderbolts to tear asunder the cedars of Lebanon. The power of the Holy Spirit is a work in it."
As we celebrate Valentine's Day, the First Letter of St. John is but one of the many messages of love that God sends to us in the fashion of which Father Cantalamessa spoke. St. John tells us, "And this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us" (1Jn 4:10). Indeed, "We love because He first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). Love is on God's initiative and not our own. God loves us so much that He gives that which is closest to Him, His own Divine Son, who gave His life for us. "In this way the love of God is revealed to us: God sent his only son into the world so that we might have life through Him" (1 Jn 4:19).
We express our love for God in the love that we show to one another. This love is based on our willingness to sacrifice and give ourselves to others. We know how this is expressed in those who are closest to us in our family and friends. Again, St. John reminds us, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we must also love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is brought to perfection in us " (1 Jn 4:11-12). St. John reminds us of this fundamental truth so well when he says, “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the command we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother" (1 Jn 4:20-21.).
As we continue to move through the month of February, Valentine's Day, at the very heart of the month, beckons us to reflect upon what is at the heart of our lives. This is the love of God in whose image and likeness we are created. We are created to be loved by God, to love God and to love each other. Last year, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday were one and the same day. The last time this occurred was in 1945. While it may have seemed that the two days were incongruous, they were very much complementary. True love expresses itself in sacrifice. The fullness of love, God Himself, sacrificed Himself for us by giving us His Son, who gave His life on the Cross.
Valentine's Day reminds us that God loves us at each and every moment of our existence. He continually sends us Valentine’s of His love. His love is what is the very heart of our lives and that love will envelop us completely in eternity. Loving God in return is what brings joy to our lives and that love is best expressed directly to Him in the love that we show to one another.
Happy St. Valentine's Day to all!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 8, 2019