Tuesday is the secular Valentine’s Day. Some years ago St. Valentine was removed from the church calendar because there is almost no reliable information about him, other than he likely was martyred in Rome. How he became associated with expressions of love is unknown as well, although some suggest that it was the work of English poet Chaucer who wrote that it is on St Valentine’s Day that birds choose their mates. Regardless of the history it is nice periodically to acknowledge those who are important to us.
Over the years I have received many valentines from students in both Catholic schools and religious education programs. The messages in candy, in cards and in gesture are simple and direct: “I love you. You’re great.” Recently in Aberdeen I received not a Valentine greeting but a note from a young student which declared: “Thank you Bishop Swain. Thank you for all you’ve done! I can’t imagine a better bishop and I’m not just saying that because you are the bishop.” It picked up my spirit as I was fighting my annual eternal winter cold.
When I was growing up in our public school every student had a paper bag with his or her name on it taped to the walls around the room. Each of us would put valentine greetings in the bags. Those of the popular kids were overflowing. Some bags were never full. Some were disappointed not to receive a valentine from a boy or girl secretly admired. This ritual became an early lesson in the disappointments in life. Once we have been disappointed, even hurt, we can turn in on ourselves or we can become more sensitive to the hurts of others. I’m not sure public schools can now recognize a Saint’s day in that way but we still have the opportunity to decide how we respond.
Our first reading from Sirach reminds us that we have the freedom to make choices. “Before man,” the writer notes, “are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” The question is on what basis do we make those choices?
In this day of instant and 140 character communications we yearn for the bottom line, simple and direct: “what must I do, what are the rules, what is expected of me.” Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount from which our Gospel is drawn essentially lays out the bottom line in brief, direct messages. They are direct but not simple to live.
Some of the religious leaders of the time had a bottom line mentality.” If I fulfill these rituals, do these things, then I am righteous, I am holy and God is therefore bound to save me.” It does not quite work that way. What we do must flow from what we believe, what is in our heart. It is not enough to live the letter of the law, though law guides us onto the right path. Rather we are to treat one another with the respect and dignity that is due each person because like us God gifted them with life. To the extent that we treat others as objects or tools or things, we will be held accountable. There are consequences to our choices.
Jesus calls us to something more than mere legal obedience; he calls us to love and forgiveness, moral obedience. He calls us to love God and one another as he has loved us. As he raised up the commandments he taught what a high standard we as his disciples are called to. It is not enough never to have killed anyone; he expects that we not even become angry with anyone. Don’t go to court, he says, settle your differences directly. Not only keep your marriage commitment, don’t view others as lustful objects. Don’t rely on oaths to prove your honesty, simply tell the truth. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no; live lives of integrity. Whether we can live out these standards flows from what we believe, or rather in whom we believe.
Just before we come to the altar to receive the Body of Christ, we exchange the sign of peace. This is not intended to be a moment of glad handing or social awakening. It is in a gesture to show that we both need and desire reconciliation with one another before we are worthy enough to receive our Lord body, blood, soul, divinity.
Saint John Paul II commenting on today’s Gospel reading wrote: “there is one source of power that is stronger than every disappointment, bitterness or ingrained mistrust, and that power is Jesus Christ who brought forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.”
In New York City two men were making their way through the crowd. As usual it was noisy with people and taxi horns blowing. One man was a native New Yorker, the other a farmer visiting from Kansas. Suddenly the farmer stopped. “Hold on, I hear a cricket.” His friend replied with amazement, “you’re kidding. Even if there were a cricket around here you’d never be able to hear it with all this noise.” The farmer listened, then walked over to a planter and turned over a leaf. There was a cricket. “Watch”, he said. Taking some coins from his pocket, he dropped them on the sidewalk. Every head in the nearby crowd turned to look. “You see”, said the farmer, “you hear what you want to hear. It’s a matter of what you are listening for.” We see what we want to see. It’s a matter of what we are looking for. Do we see Christ in our midst?
The Book of Sirach reads: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you, if you trust in God you too shall live.” “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Heart shaped valentine candy often have the words, “Be Mine.” A better expression of love would be: “Be Thine.” Be Christ’s.