Now that another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, I find myself musing once again on the mysteries of love. It’s one of the most common words in the English language, the central theme of an endless number of popular songs and movies, and yet settling on a clear and concise definition of the word itself can be extremely elusive, if not downright maddening.
People use the word “love” to describe how they feel about an astonishingly wide variety of things. For example, a person may “love” their mother, but this same person may also “love” Starbucks or the Seattle Seahawks. Call me crazy, but I don’t think most people would want to place the same value on their mother as they would on a cup of coffee or a professional football team.
Some people will try to clarify the subject by emphasizing the role that “passion” plays in one’s definition of love. In other words, you know that you truly love someone or something when you are consumed with a deep sense of “passion” for a particular person, place or thing. And by “passion” most people mean “a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something” or “a strong sexual or romantic feeling for someone” (see Merriam-Webster). This is no doubt the type of “love” that drives the modern Hallmark version of Valentine’s Day.
This is where historical and rhetorical context comes in handy. In its original usage, the word “passion” (Latin, passio) literally meant “suffering.” This helps us understand why Mel Gibson chose to call his account of the sufferings of Jesus during his final hours on earth The Passion of the Christ. It also helps us better understand why Jesus was willing to endure such unspeakable suffering. The Bible tells us that Jesus loved the world so passionately that he was continually “moved with compassion” (Latin, com + pati; to suffer with). It was out of this bottomless well of unrelenting compassion that people were continually healed, fed, forgiven and set free in Jesus’ name (cf. Mt 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Lk 15:20).
The practical implications for those of us who call ourselves friends of Jesus should be crystal clear by now. If we are going to have any chance of making a lasting impact on this world for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom, we must renounce our culture’s infatuation with passion as nothing more than a capricious, romantic emotion, and we must embrace Christ’s incarnation of passion as the willingness to suffer with and for those we have been called to love in Jesus’ name. Like our Lord himself, we must be willing to be “moved with compassion” in order to bear the genuine fruit of Christ-like passion.
So what does all of this have to do with Valentine’s Day? Here again, historical context comes in handy. During the third century there was a Christian priest in Rome who was known for assisting Christians who were being persecuted during the reign of Claudius II. Because of his passionate love for Christ and the church, he was committed to proclaiming the gospel, performing marriages for Christian couples and helping Christians escape persecution. For these “crimes of passion,” this priest was arrested and imprisoned, and was eventually condemned to death when he tried to convert the emperor. He was beaten with stones, clubbed, and, finally, beheaded on February 14, 269. In the year 496, February 14 was named as a day of celebration in honor of St. Valentine, the priest from Rome.
To borrow from an old song by DC Talk, “Love is a Verb.”
– David O. Williams, General Superintendent of EFC-MAYM