I sat down to write a Valentine's Day blog post, but all I keep seeing is the faces of three beautiful young adults who were senselessly murdered only 10 miles from my adopted hometown. I wanted to write about both the silliness of our romantic fantasies and also the real longing that we all feel in our souls to be known and loved. Instead my own soul is torn between believing that real love really does ultimately win and the creeping despair of having to try and make any sense at all of this kind of darkness. I am reminded of the mysterious origins of Valentine's Day itself, which somehow, through much myth and little logic, tie the day we set aside to celebrate romantic devotion with the martyrdom of a person who may or may not have even existed. Much is written but little is known of St. Valentine, still recognized as such by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but the most persistent stories about him are that he healed a young girl of blindness and that he was beheaded for refusing to worship idols in 3rd century Rome.
It is hard to believe that we live yet again in a time when our religious beliefs can get us killed. It is unclear whether Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were targeted because of their Muslim faith, or even if it is ever possible to understand what the motive could be for such a horrific act. But the fact that we can so easily conceive of this, that many Muslims in this country live in fear that they could indeed be violently assaulted for their religious beliefs, is enough of a reason to wonder how much the first century of this millennium echoes the first century of modern time.
If this is true, then love becomes so much more than chocolates and candy and romance. Love is a radical choice, the basis of all true religion, and what it says at times like these is that we absolutely will not and cannot allow violence and death to have the last word. Love means seeing the face of God in every face we encounter, from those closest to us to those whose views we see as repugnant. It even means, I believe, remembering that those who commit terrible acts of violence are themselves still beloved children of God, as painful and difficult as this is. Otherwise, the world continues to devolve towards fear.
This is why it takes courage to love: it is dangerous. Opening our hearts to others can break them, sometimes quite literally. But for those of us who believe, there can be no other choice, especially in the face of so much darkness. The power of love is the only thing that can overcome this.
I am reminded, so sadly, that these three deaths are not the only senseless killings this week that are tied to religious practice. Christian aid worker Kayla Mueller was killed in Syria, where she was being held captive. Much is also unknown here, but what is known is that she was a passionate, faith-driven advocate for the suffering, and that she lost her life in part because what she believed pushed her into dangerous places. Yet as she wrote to her family from captivity, 'do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I and by God's will we will be together soon.'
Martyrs are remembered in the Christian faith not so much that they died for their faith but that they died with their faith. That they believed in the love of God even in the face of loneliness and isolation, fear and pain and death. This, I think, is worth remembering, worth celebrating, worth believing for ourselves. Every act of love changes the world. Whether St. Valentine ever existed or not, this is what he represents. Whether we rejoice on Valentine's Day day or we weep, it is worth our devotion.