A standard joke on American sitcoms is a single person, lonely on Valentine's Day, who says that the day is "nothing more than a bogus holiday dreamed up by corporate interests to sell greeting cards, candy and flowers." In fact, I once held this view myself (both when I was single and when I was in a relationship).
Obviously there is truth in this view of the holiday. Mass produced and overly sentimental "love" is largely what Valentine's day is in our commercialized culture. But - and I freely concede that being happily married to a wonderful woman has affected me here - I've come to see meaning and purpose in this holiday.
If we step back and think of this day as a day to set aside for the celebration of love, we shall see that it is well worth the observing. And I mean ALL LOVE. We love our family and friends, our lovers, and to some degree - when we are at our best - all of our fellow human beings. Having a day to recognize this love is important. Of course, the day loses meaning if we don't love the whole year around, but holidays serve as symbolic reminders that bring such truths to our consciousness.
Love is what is best about human beings. Yes, I know that we are also full of hypocrisy, hate, greed, and foolishness. And for this very reason it is all the more important that love be remembered, that love have the final say in our lives.
There are various legends and tales about a supposed St. Valentine. These tales come out of the later middle ages and the 19th century, and have nothing to do with any possible "Historical Valentine." Common to all the tales is the idea that either Valentine himself, or young people whom he as a priest married, were forbidden to love and wed by the forces of tyranny, oppression and empire. Valentine defies these powers and their laws, celebrating and sanctifying love. For his courage, Valentine is martyred.
The message in the tales of St. Valentine is that love liberates us. By loving each other we discover ourselves, and only then. This, in the legends of Valentine is why love is forbidden and why Valentine is proclaimed a hero for championing love against the power of empire.
Romantic love in particular is celebrated on this day. I used to hold that this was nothing more than a bias on our part. Privileging one kind of love over the others. Well, we do in fact misconceive and over sentimentalize romantic love (just as we do childhood). Nevertheless, romantic love unites two people like nothing else can.
Romantic love burns down the walls that separate us and compels us to grow, mature, and change in ways we never thought possible and never knew we could. I have come to see, however, that we cannot celebrate Romantic love, or even all love alone, we must also remember to celebrate justice.
The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has often written that love and justice require each other. In The Greatest Prayer, he writes that:
Think, then, of justice as the body of love and love as the soul of justice [....] Combined you have both; seperated you have neither. Justice without love or love without justice is a moral corpse. This is why justice without love becomes brutal and love without justice becomes banal.
In short, love by itself is not always just or world-transforming, and there is a real danger it will degrade it to an empty and sappy sentimentality; and justice without love shows no mercy, heeds no compassion: we must have both together. And what is justice? For this Crossan has an answer as well:
The biblical tradition insists that God is a God of "justice and righteousness," that is, of distributive justice and restorative righteousness. Think, for example, of this divine claim:
"I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:24). Furthermore, rulers are expected to participate in that same divine character. "Thus says then Lord: act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place" (Jeremiah 22:3). The most serious and far-reaching misunderstanding of that biblical tradition is to interpret divine justice as retributive rather than distributive, as if it meant a proper punishment for some rather than a fair share for all [....]
So let us celebrate love today, let us celebrate each other. But let us celebrate justice as well, for we need to honor both, and the two must never be separated.