“What Have You Got Worth Living For? True Love!”–St. Valentine, Marriage and the Orthodox Faith

Readings: Hebrews 13:4 Genesis 1 and 2; Ephesians 5; Tobit (especially 8:4-8)

My children’s generation grew up on a classical love-story, tinged with touches of humor: The Princess Bride, more often watched in the film version than read in the book by William Goldman. I remember my middle daughter Alexandra being delighted that the story begins with a grandfather telling his ill grandchild a story, when she was also home ill from school while watching the story on our VHS. Even the adults are typically amused by that ridiculous scene when Miracle Max blows air by means of fire-bellows into Westley’s mouth, asking the question, “What have you got worth living for?” and the “mostly-dead” young man responds, “True Love!”

Of course, romantic love is one of those things about human life that has been celebrated, exaggerated, sentimentalized and even idolized. Yet, when it is put in its proper place, the love of a man and woman is “a many-splendored thing.” As the book of Hebrews advises, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and adulterous.” (Heb 13:4 RSV). Even more amazing is the mysterious remark of St. Paul, which speaks of the sacrificial relationship between a husband and a wife as “profound mystery” related to Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:32). The attraction of a man for a woman, and vice versa, is a powerful thing, and finds its way into the opening chapters of Genesis, when Adam recognizes “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” as God presents Eve to him.

In thinking about romantic love, and its fulfillment in marriage, those who are members of the ancient Church are at a distinct advantage. This time of year (and then again on July 6, another of his feast-days), they may be led to contemplate the remarkable story of St. Valentine—the REAL story, not the Hallmark one. Here was a miracle-working saint of the third century who is remembered for his boldness in witnessing for Christ, and who was so convinced of the importance of conjugal love that he defied the Emperor’s edict against soldiers marrying. He wed Christian young couples secretly, so that their Christian calling could be fulfilled, and was executed for his troubles—but not before, says one story, he fell in love with a Christian young woman who cared for him in prison.

Besides the explicit teaching on marriage in the New Testament, and the confirmation of this by St. Valentine, we also may call on several of the “Readable Books” among the Deuterocanonical books (called “Apocrypha” by Protestants) that focus on domestic matters and the love of godly couples. We will look especially at the absorbing story found in Tobit. In this book, and older man Tobit and his wife Hannah who are in Assyrian exile send their son Tobias to take care of family business far away in the land of Media. The old man, from Northern Israel, but loyal to Jerusalem and the Temple, cannot make the trip, for he is blind, and his wife is concerned for their son’s safety. The three will discover, as Tobias’ name declares, that “God is good,”—not only will the money come back intact, not only will Tobias be kept safe by an angel who accompanies him on the trip, but also he will return with a lovely new wife and with the means to heal his father. A major complication of the plot captures our attention, when we meet his wife-to-be, Sarah, who previously has lost seven new husbands because of a malevolent spirit who attacks them on their wedding night. Tobias, however, is by no means dissuaded from his determination to wed her, for he has the protection offered to him by the angel Raphael. In trust, he encourages his fearful new bride to pray for protection as they approach the marriage bed:

“Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us.” And Tobias began to pray, “Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers, and blessed be thy holy and glorious name for ever. Let the heavens and all thy creatures bless thee. Thou madest Adam and gavest him Eve his wife as a helper and support. From them the race of mankind has sprung. Thou didst say, `It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.’ And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” And she said with him, “Amen.” (Tob 8:4-8 RSV)

We remark upon the prayer, which appeals to God’s plan for the first couple and His intent that we should not be isolated. We also notice that Tobias, in piety, enters into marriage for the right reasons, with the hope of a long and blessed life together. And his young bride agrees with him in prayers, making the two gathered together now Three, for God has heard them.

To the astonishment of her family, they see the light of morning, and the couple is treated to an extended marriage feast while Tobias’ family back in Assyria fear the worst, since their son has been gone longer than they anticipated. Hannah and Tobit’s fears are put to rest, however, when Tobias returns home with his new bride. The family is reunited, with ample evidence of God’s concern for every part of life, and not simply for the grand sweep of nations with their victories and defeats. His father, who has prophetic gifts, warns the couple that they should migrate to Media when he dies, for Assyria is itself bound for destruction. And so the stories of nations and young couples, of pious action including obedience to parents, and the fulfillment of romantic love, all come together in God’s plan. Tobias’ experience is not unlike that of the patriarch Jacob, who returned to his homeland in obedience to his father and mother to find a godly wife: he experienced great trials (some of them of his own making!) and had to work fourteen years in order to win his chosen bride Rachel. In the end, his happiness and God’s provision for Israel merged. Our God, then, cares for people-groups and for the personal lives of those who make up the groups. He is as much the Lord of the domestic life as of the cosmos.

These stories place the wonder of romantic love within a larger context, a context that can both contain the pyrotechnics of “true love,” and integrate it within the life of the community—all the while God uses it for His own purposes. The attraction for another is not an end in itself, though it is also not scorned in the Scriptures: but it is part and parcel of a life that also demands faithfulness, attention to one’s obligations and community, and the blessing and direction of God Himself. In one way, the coming together of a husband and wife are simply part and parcel of the whole, a natural part of life as God intended it to be. But, when entered into and persisted in with fidelity and wisdom, the two become more than the sum of their parts—their union is rendered a picture of divine love, so that those who look at this arrangement can see through it to something even more grand. In the wedding of these two who are like, and made from the same elements, though different, we can see, it seems, two mysteries—the love of Christ and the Church; the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The two become one, while remaining each himself or herself. (Incidentally, this “iconic” nature of marriage should in itself be an indication to us of the true nature of marriage in an age which seems bent on redefining such things, over against the clear words of Romans 1, for example, or the longstanding tradition of the Church. Not every human being is called to matrimony, but those who are need to understand what a marriage entails—the life-long union, under God, of a man and a woman, in echo of the first gift that God gave to humankind in Genesis: not a mere satisfaction of human desire or misguided passion, or to abandon at one’s will. St. Valentine, the patron of young couples, also provides a model for the celibate, for he himself never married, but remained chaste according to his circumstances, and gave glory to God in a different manner.) As for the couple themselves, God uses their marriage it not only for their immediate physical and emotional blessing, but for other purposes, both natural and spiritual: the miraculous appearance of tiny new humans under their care (who will teach them even more patience!); and the gradual fostering of Christ-like characteristics as they learn to adapt to each other, and together, to remain faithful in unforeseen events.

Eros, or the love of a man and woman, can be used by God, in conjunction with the other “love”—affection for one’s children, friendship, and the altruistic, giving-love of agapē, modeled in such a poignant way by the One who gave up his life for his friends. We have “true love” to live for—not our own, but the One who is himself Love, and who has gone before us in this adventure that we call life. The married couple is wise that knows its own limitations, and focusses upon that Love above all Loves. After nearly forty-two years of marriage to one who is still my best friend, both of us continue to be sustained by the love honoured by the seventeenth century poet, Samuel Crossman:

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend,
My Friend indeed,
Who at my need
His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!”
is all their breath,
And for His death
they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries!
Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
and ’gainst Him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He
to suffering goes,
That He His foes
from thence might free.

In life no house, no home,
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb,
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heav’n was his home;
But mine the tomb
Wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
in Whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.
(Samuel Crossman, 1664)

4 comments:

  1. Dear Lady – I always enjoy your writing but this posting is especially delightful and helpful. Thanks so much for sharing your skill as a scholar and author. I previously posted an article by you and Prof. Gagnon, “Stop Calling Ted Cruz a Dominionist – The Christian candidate’s faith influences his platform, but not in the ways most critics assume,” on my own wee blog. With your kind permission I would like to repost this current article giving you full attribution and including a link to your own A Lamp for Today website. Thanks for your consideration. Ron <
    PS – My website is: http://www.ronfurg.wordpress.com.

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