I walked through the grocery store six to eight weeks ago and noticed an entire aisle of heart-shaped boxes containing cheap chocolates. I knew that aisle to be the seasonal aisle, the anachronistic part of the grocery store, the aisle where what is sold and what time of year it is doesn’t match. That was my first hint that Valentine’s Day was coming.1 By the mere commercial size of the holiday, it is easy to see that Valentine’s Day is a secular holiday without much care as to whether Christians participate or not aside from the depth of their wallets. And yet most Christians with even a modicum of knowledge of church history have a vague feeling that this holiday is, was, or could be (with the right intention) a Christian holiday. So, in this brief essay, I hope to clear up all these vague notions and provide some Christian thoughts on Valentine’s Day.
The way Valentine’s Day is typically justified as a Christian holiday goes something like this: “There was this great Christian guy named Valentine. He was a renowned matchmaker, maybe even a pastor. Oh, and he was also martyred. Somewhere in there, maybe to a girl he loved, and before his martyrdom, he wrote a romantic letter and signed it, ‘from your Valentine.’ It was sooooo romantic. And then everyone started celebrating Valentine’s Day to remember his matchmaking, sacrifice, and love.” The only problem with all of this is that some, or all, or most of it didn’t happen.
There were actually two Valentines. The first was a priest that was martyred on the Flaminian Way under Emperor Claudius sometime in the third century. The second Valentine was the bishop of Terni, pope for a few months, and then martyred in Rome sometime early in the ninth century. There are legendary tales surrounding these men that involve matchmaking and unrequited love. And by “legendary tales,” I mean probably not true. So if you want to take your wife out to a nice dinner on February 14 and throw a few dollars into the Hallmark coffer, all in the name of two martyred priests, go for it. You do you. But there is a more excellent way.
Romanticism Isn’t Romantic
But before we get to that more excellent way, let’s make a brief excursus to discuss romance. Romantic love as such, is great and biblical (more on that in a minute). But there was also this brief period in the development of Western thought that went a little overboard and made a cartoonish caricature out of romantic love. This interdisciplinary philosophical movement is called Romanticism and occurred in the latter part of the eighteenth century in conjunction with the French Revolution. And despite how much you love Les Miserables, the French Revolution was bad for Christianity. Romanticism highlighted individualism, subjective experience, and emotionalism. When it came to love, Romanticism took the brief moments of beautiful ecstasy that can (and should) accompany covenant love and defined those passing moments as love itself. Romanticism mistook the fruit for the tree and, in the process, destroyed both. When someone says that they have “fallen in love” or “fallen out of love,” whether they know it or not, that person is expressing a Romantic (capital R) view of love, not a biblical view of love. Biblical covenant love can’t be fallen into or out of; it can only be committed to or broken.
“Make Valentine’s Day an evangelistic day, where the world, grasping for something meaningful, looks at Christian marriages and says, ‘Who cares about roses and chocolates, I want what those people have.’”—Joe Holland
And now we arrive at the problem of Valentine’s Day. Love and romance aren’t about chasing or manufacturing emotional highs. Those highs may (and do) accompany covenant love, but they do not define it any more than an apple is an apple tree. So, secular Valentine’s Day, as I see it, is a vaguely Christian commercial endeavor designed to reinforce the ideals of Romanticism and make a ton of money for retailers in the process. Change my mind.
Romantic Love Is Christian Marriage
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with Christian marriage. Christian marriage is the only intentional picture of biblical love.2 Christian marriage is the only definition of true romantic and covenant love for (at least) four reasons:
- It is between a man and a woman. In the wake of Obergefell and whatever legislation may seek to define marriage as something other than what God has said, it is essential to stubbornly reiterate that romantic love is between a man and a woman.
- It is life-long. Don’t get me started on couples writing their own wedding vows and leaving out “until death do us part.” That phrase isn’t a poetic rendering of well-wishes that “maybe, kinda, in the right circumstances, we might ride this thing out and stay married, if you don’t make me too angry, and meet all my needs.” No. The marriage covenant is a covenant to death. The ideal marriage ceremony includes a funeral service at the other end, where one spouse rejoices that the other has gone on to be with Jesus and that both of them have been faithful to what they promised—covenant love. You’d think the mention of funerals makes all of this very NOT romantic. It is actually quite the opposite. Married folks will know what I’m talking about.
- It is founded on the gospel. The gospel first calls us all sinners, woefully deficient to meet God’s standard of righteousness. The gospel also proclaims Jesus as the only savior for sinners, for those who come to him by faith. Covenant love, biblical love, is gospel love and is only present in a Christian marriage. A Christian marriage is where two sinners forgive and are forgiven. It isn’t about compromise, authenticity, holding space, or anything like that. It is about loving sacrifice after the pattern of Jesus.
- It is the pattern of Christ and the church. As Paul writes in Ephesians 5:22–32, human marriage is ultimately a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the church.3
There is more to say, but we can stop here. It is enough to say that biblical love, covenant love is the true picture of romantic love rather than the carnival mirror image that commercialized Romanticism wants to parade out once a year on February 14. And speaking of annual occurrences, we need to discuss observances.
Too Weak, Too Infrequent
Whether it is because of banks, the federal government committee on holiday observances, or how we celebrate our own birthdays, we tend to think of holidays as annual occurrences. Whereas the Old Testament definitely had its fair share of annual holidays, the New Testament has only a single weekly holiday (no matter what the Anglicans tell you). On the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week (Rev. 1:10; John 20:1; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), Christians gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and all the benefits that the church, his bride, receives from that great victory over sin, death, and the devil. Sunday worship is covenant worship, and it weekly reminds us of the marital union between Jesus and the church.
So how often should we celebrate our marital love? Yearly is far too long based on the pattern that Jesus gives as he celebrates with his wife weekly. And no, I’m not necessarily advocating for a sacrosanct date night. If that works for you, do it. But the biblical pattern teaches us that romantic love between husband and wife should be on display often and much. It isn’t that celebrating Valentine’s Day is too much; it is too little and weak. Christians, live your married years so that you don’t need Valentine’s Day. Make Valentine’s Day an evangelistic day, where the world, grasping for something meaningful, looks at Christian marriages and says, “Who cares about roses and chocolates, I want what those people have.”
- That aisle is always my first clue that a holiday is close but not near. I look at that aisle in confusion and say, “Surely it can’t be X holiday yet.” Then I resolve my confusion and remind myself that that aisle is a grossly early harbinger of whatever holiday isn’t even remotely near but definitely next. ↩
- I say intentional because marriage is a creational ordinance. When a non-Christian man and a non-Christian woman covenant in marriage to a life-long faithfulness, they are imaging the biblical ideal, though unintentionally. It is unintentional because a non-Christian marriage lacks the gospel, a key ingredient of Christian marriage, a marriage that intentionally images the relationship between Jesus and the church. ↩
- In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Gen. 2:18–25 is the true protoevangelium rather than Gen. 3:15. I say this because the gospel was pictured in Adam and Eve’s marriage before it was promised immediately after the fall in the serpent-crushing seed. ↩