Three events took place in a single week, indeed, in three consecutive days: the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday), Valentine’s Day (Thursday), and my first test of the term in Old Testament survey (Friday), which required the students to write down the 10 Commandments from memory. In a way, all three of them had to do with love.
While the work of Anders Nygren (Agape and Eros) and that of C. S. Lewis (The Four Loves) are flawed when it comes to Greek linguistics, both have clearly shown that the English term “love” has multiple meanings, or, better put, a wide semantic range. The problem that the two authors named above had was that they connected parts of this semantic range to specific Greek words, when in fact some of the Greek words also have quite a range. Agape, for example, is not only found designating God’s love of human beings in the New Testament, but it is also found as the only word for love in the Song of Solomon, a love that involves body parts and a woman sneaking out for a tryst with her true “love” without Solomon being any the wiser. Yet it is true, as Nygren and Lewis argued, that God’s love for human beings as well as human love for God (which can be seen as the summation of those 10 Commandments) is not an emotional experience, an infatuation, or a sexual desire, as we often see in the contemporary exploitation of Valentine’s Day, but rather a deep commitment, a sacrificial commitment, to the good of the other, that is seen in the true story of St. Valentine. Such a love for God calls us to a time of self-examination and self-denial, which is the meaning of Lent.
We may summarize the 10 Commandments as Jesus did with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but then ask, “What does this mean?” In reality this calls us back to Eden, for love is, at least in part, trust. In this story of Genesis 3 human beings failed to trust God, that is, failed to love God in that they decided to secure their own independent future. The issue in Eden is not so much the breaking of the commandment as the abandonment of love and trust, as the abandonment of dependence upon God; that is the core of Genesis 3. However one reads the narrative, the reality is evident in human life.
Rather than love the Lord our God and believe the teaching of Jesus, we say, “Blessed are the rich, for they will be given positions of influence.” Rather than love the Lord our God and believe the teaching of Jesus, we say, “Blessed are the strong and powerful, for they will defeat their enemies.” This is also the story of the Old Testament. Israel turned to foreign gods, to fertility gods, and we turn to Mammon, which we have renamed Wall Street, or economic/financial security. Israel turned to other gods, to gods of power such as Ba’al and the gods of Assyria, and we turn to Mars, whether in the personal form of little Mars, the small image of Mars, the pistol in our purse, or the national form of “national security.” Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Well, how about, “Love your enemies”? Well, how about, “Sell what you have and give to the poor”? We work hard at explaining why these and many other teachings of Jesus do not apply to us, or are merely personal and internal. Oh yes, we say, they were taken quite seriously by Francis of Assisi, by A. W. Tozer, and by other great followers of Jesus down the ages, but they are not for us. We want to experience the love of God, and so we have an exciting worship event with a great band. This sounds more like the love of Valentine’s Day than the love that Jesus talked about. And such infatuation love wears off quickly; it takes the type of love that the spiritual tradition speaks so much about to last a lifetime. Jesus is committed to our good, and to show it he did not have good feelings, but he had the painful feelings of stretching out his arms upon the cross. This is the type of love that has lasted not only for a lifetime but for millennia. If we love him, if we really love him, we will keep his commandments. After all, his commandments are his interpretation of the 10 Commandments – we see that in Matthew 5. If we love him, we will keep his commandments, which means we will meditate on the Gospels, and we will seek to follow his teaching. If we need help, we have two millennia of spiritual writers to help us, starting with the Apostolic Fathers and the Desert Fathers and continuing to this day.
So Valentine’s Day and the 10 Commandments are not really that far from Lent. Lent calls us to examine our hearts and ask ourselves if we really love Jesus. That is, it calls us to ask if we are really keeping his commandments. The more seriously we take his teaching, the deeper our examination becomes. The deeper our examination becomes, the more we repent and make decisions to live the radical type of life that Jesus calls us to. And as we step forward into this life, those around us will surely call us fools, as they did Jesus and most of the saints, but we will also experience God’s love, or, to put it a different way, the joy of the Holy Spirit. That is, if we send a genuine Valentine to God, we will surely get one back. St. Francis was not a miserable, mean-spirited, poor man of Assisi, but God’s joyful fool, happy beggar, and lover of God’s world. That is why he started a massive renewal in his day, for the love of God flowed through him.