MANY HAPPY RETURNS
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 14, 2015
Hosea 6:1-6; 1 John 3:18-24

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.”
1 John 3:18

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day — the day when all the world seems to be in love with love. For this one brief day in the dead of winter, it’s not considered at all out of place to express affection publicly — and even to act a little silly doing it.

Kids tramp off to school with bookbags bulging with punched-out paper valentines; teenagers consult their smartphones, looking for a special text from a special person; grown men and women ring their own doorbells, sheepish grins on their faces and candy or flowers hidden behind their backs. Valentine’s Day is the day for love.

Do you know where Valentine’s Day comes from? Originally it was St. Valentine’s Day — a holy day of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s not a saint’s day anymore; St. Valentine was “decanonized” a while back, along with St. Patrick, St. Christopher and a host of others. It seems no one can prove he ever existed.

Real person or no, his legend lives on. Here’s how the story goes.

Valentinus was a Christian living in ancient Rome. It was a time of persecution; when the emperor issued a decree commanding all citizens to worship the Roman gods, Valentinus was one of those who refused. He was sentenced to death.

While he was in prison, on the Roman equivalent of Death Row, Valentinus became friendly with his jailer. The jailer recognized him as a man of learning, and asked him to tutor his daughter, Julia — a beautiful young woman who also happened to be blind.

Day after day, Valentinus told Julia of the world she could never see — and he told her of his God, and of God’s son Jesus Christ. As their friendship grew, Julia admitted how she yearned for sight, wondering what it would be like to behold the worlds of beauty her teacher had described. Valentinus assured her that, for those who believe in God, anything is possible.

Julia became a Christian. One day shortly afterward, as the two sat quietly in prayer, the prison cell was filled with a brilliant white light. Julia cried out in amazement. She could see! She had been healed.

Soon after, Valentinus was notified that the time of his execution was near. He wrote Julia a farewell note, urging her to keep the faith. He signed it, “From your Valentinus” – or, as we would say, “from your Valentine.” His death sentence, it is said, was carried out the next day — February 14th, in the year 270 A.D.

The legend goes on to tell how Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave, as a symbol of her unending love — love of God and of her Valentine.

It’s a touching story — but there’s nothing in it to indicate that the love between Valentinus and Julia was “romantic,” as we’d call it today. Yet it is a tale of growing affection between two unlikely people — a condemned man and a blind girl. The two of them found each other, and their lives were changed.

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When scientists talk about love, some are inclined to talk about it as chemistry — not the kind of “chemistry” we usually think about as two lovers get together, but chemistry in a very literal sense. Some researchers are convinced there’s a chemical in the brain that accounts for love. They’re trying to isolate it in the laboratory. (Personally, I hope they never find it.)

Most of us, I’d venture to say, are more romantic than that. We believe in lovers finding one another for reasons other than chemistry. We believe in marriage vows — and we believe that true love is forever. I believe there’s good reason for Christians to celebrate romantic love.

Do you know who’s the greatest romantic of all? God! Yes, God. For God created love, this inner eye that is able to see not only the body, and not only the personality, but the soul of the one we love.

God made us for relationship. In marriage, the Bible says, a man leaves father and mother “and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” That coming together in committed, lifelong love is one of the greatest things in the world.

That’s not to say, of course, that marriage is for everyone. It isn’t. Marriage is a form of discipleship, and it is not everyone’s calling. Yet, married or no, every Christian ought to be interested in marriage — for it is one of the most vital institutions in our society (and one of the most endangered).

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It’s been said that no couple stays married for the same reason they got married. The love that draws a couple together in young adulthood is not the same love that keeps them together, through the birth and rearing of children, through the triumphs of mid-life and the challenge of old age.

The scientists tell us that, every seven years, our skin cells regenerate. Cells are constantly dying and being replaced, and by the time seven years are up, we’ve got a whole new set of them. Something very similar is true of the persons we are inside. None of us are the same person today that we were seven years ago. Growth is a lifelong process — and so, too, is love. You can’t pin love down, dissect it, study it.

There is no good marriage that does not also contain within it some potential for failure; and, by the same token, there is no failing marriage that does not contain within it some potential for new life.

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In his “Prairie Home Companion” radio show, Garrison Keillor once retold an ancient Native American legend: how, at the beginning of time, man and woman were created joined together at the spine, facing in opposite directions. Marriage is the process by which a man and a woman, over the course of many years, turn and face each other.

We are different, men and women. Not only that, any two individuals coming together in relationship are also different. There are clashes of family background, upbringing, traditions — sometimes even religious faith. It sometimes seems a miracle that two people can come together at all, turning toward each other in committed relationship.

Yet turn toward each other they do, taking one another’s hands — as many have done right here in this sanctuary — and repeating vows of lifelong faithfulness.

Does anyone ever realize what they’re undertaking when they exchange marriage vows, when they make any sort of love-commiment with another person? I doubt it.

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Turning toward each other is more than a one-time occurrence in marriage, or any long-term relationship. In order for that sort of commitment to succeed, the two partners must also return to each other.

There is much in the world that would seek to turn us from commitment, to deflect us from our resolve to be faithful. Yet, it’s not the turning that truly makes a marriage, but the returning. Popular wisdom has it that the most important choice in marriage is whom we marry. Just find the right person, the teaching goes, the one who is yin to your yang, whose emotional contours fit yours precisely, and you will be blessed with unending bliss.

That sort of thinking fails to account for the remarkable resilience of marriage in societies where all marriages are arranged. In some parts of India, for example, young men and women are betrothed in their early teens. Throughout their teenage years they communicate only by letter, and then under careful parental supervision. They meet each other only once, maybe twice, before the wedding — and never without chaperones close by.

Can you imagine it? On their wedding night, the bride and groom are not total strangers, but they’re not exactly friends either. Yet as outlandish as this custom may seem to us, many of those couples report that they’ve found great happiness together. That’s because they’ve learned to turn towards each other, and to return.

It’s worthwhile pointing out, on Valentine’s Day or at any other time, that love is more than hearts and flowers. It is, as 1 John tells us, not “word or speech,” but “truth and action.”

There’s a tendency in our society to think love begins and ends with feelings — but it’s much more than that. Love is also an act of the will. Sure, there’s a variety of love that “sweeps us off our feet” — and life would certainly be the poorer without it — but there’s also a deeper love, a love that grows not so much in courtship as in marriage, a soul-friendship you might call it, that thrives on the commonplace, the daily routine.

It’s not the honeyed words of the Valentine’s card that bears this kind of love, nor the sweet scent of a dozen long-stemmed roses, but the countless daily sacrifices for the good of the other, the giving of one’s very self.

C.S. Lewis is said to have remarked, “In the early stages, love keeps marriage together; but there comes a time when marriage keeps love together.”

We all know marriage is under fire today. Some claim it’s a dinosaur — that any other consensual relationships is just as good. I don’t believe that. Just as God made us for love, God also made us for commitment. I believe there’s no place like marriage for love to grow, for turning towards each other and for returning again and again.

If you find, this Valentine’s Day, that your valentine is the man or woman to whom you once turned in marriage, then you are to be commended. And to the two of you I also say, “Many happy returns.”