One afternoon in Turkey, 2000 years ago, a man called Paul sat down and wrote a very long letter to his colleagues in the Corinth office.
The epistle, delivered by inter-office donkey, contained many beautiful thoughts on life and faith, and it went down very well with the Corinthians, although Quintus in Marketing was concerned that Paul claimed to be seeing “through a glass, darkly”. Had the Ephesus branch stopped washing its windows? Because that really wouldn’t reflect well.
They told Quintus to put a sock in it and he asked, “What’s a sock?” and they told him to go and feed the donkey, and they read on, eagerly. But then they came across a passage that made them glance awkwardly at each other; because instead of being about righteousness and worldly troubles, it was about love.
Love, wrote Paul, carefully forming the letters in a world full of cruelty, is patient. It is kind. It does not envy or boast. It isn’t proud. (At this juncture they murmured, “Amen,” for many of them had recently been humbled by love, especially Barnabas in Accounts who had been sleeping on the couch since Tuesday. When they read on, and saw that love “keeps no record of wrongs”, Barnabas perked up, but they told him not to try his luck.)
Today, Paul’s advice to the Corinthians has been tarnished by overuse. A few kind and earnest hearts still repeat it at weddings, but too often, these days, 1 Corinthians is the last resort of teachers who have forgotten that they are leading the assembly devotion this morning.
This week, though, it might be worth dusting off Paul’s words. Because this is the week when our relationship with love – and our patience and kindness – are tested to the limit by Valentine’s Day.
It wasn’t always like that. When I encountered Valentine’s Day for the first time, it seemed to have a lot to do with love. Especially the bit about patience. I was incredibly patient. I waited from 1985 until 1989 to get a Valentine’s Day card from my love. It never happened, but she did once bite me in the head by accident so I can truthfully claim that I bled for her.
Once I grew up, however, and put away childish things (Quintus didn’t like that part of the epistle at all), I started to suspect that Valentine’s Day might not be about love after all, at least not the love outlined by Saint Paul. For starters, it can be spectacularly unkind. And if love is not supposed to boast or be proud, why is that asshole Brad in Grade 7 going around showing everyone the two cards he got?
love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir
No, with maturity comes the realisation that love and Valentine’s Day go together like a horse and abattoir. The Romantic-Industrial Complex has harvested the beautiful subtleties of attraction and loyalty and clamped them in a pink, fuzzy vice, doused them with despair until they melt into the general shape of a kitten, cast the warped lump in plastic retrieved from the digestive tract of a suffocated turtle, painted it with feelings of not being good enough, and then rolled it out to scream, “I WUV U!” at a lonely world.
I’m exaggerating, of course. It’s really not that bad. The turtles are dead before they hook the plastic out of them.
Still, one can’t deny that Valentine’s Day has become a vast and somewhat cynical industry: the day reportedly generates about $18-billion, $17.8-billion of which goes to columnists to write about how awful it is.
The other $0.2-billion is paid to writers to reveal the day’s ancient origins, which is how I discovered that Valentine’s Day has roots in Ancient Rome. It seems that between February 13 and 15 the ancient Romans used to celebrate fertility by getting fertile with each other, all over the place, until they had to stop and replenish their electrolytes or reupholster the furniture. Of course, they also did this on February 12 and February 16, as well as between January 1 and February 11, and from February 16 until December 31, but those three days were special.
Naturally, not everyone was involved. Valentine is, after all, the patron saint of unreasonably high expectations, and the day’s ancient ancestor would probably also have featured a fair amount of heartbreak. (“Roses are red, violets are blue, here’s a dead Gaul I had flayed just for you.” “Ja listen we need to talk.”)
Today, some of us will be involved and some of us won’t. Some hearts will soften and others will harden. Some people will taste only sweetness in the day, others will gag on the saccharine aftertaste.
Either way, though, love will remain, patient and kind. And a little more patience and kindness can never be a bad thing.
Published in The Times