I can’t help thinking it was divine inspiration that motivated the powers that be to put Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the calendar right between Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Both holidays have evolved to the place where the goal, even the expectation is what I will call “warm feelings.” You know: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …” and “later on we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire to face unafraid the plans that we’ve made …”
Both holidays have a flower — poinsettias for Christmas and roses for Valentine’s Day.
And the boats for both holidays have drifted quite far from the religious docks to which they had once been moored. The website history.com has what to me is a fascinating story about the original St. Valentine — or one of the originals, because several competed for the title.
On Feb. 14, when we share chocolates, special dinners or doily cards with our loved ones, we do it in the name of Saint Valentine. But who was this saint of romance?
Search the internet, and you can find plenty of stories about him — or them. One Valentine was reportedly a Roman priest who performed secret weddings against the wishes of the authorities in the Roman Empire, third century. Imprisoned in the home of a noble, he healed his captor’s blind daughter, causing the whole household to convert to Christianity and sealing his fate. Before being tortured and decapitated on Feb. 14, he sent the girl a note signed “Your Valentine.”
Not exactly the kind of back story you want to tell your sweetheart when you’re trying to score romantic points.
It’s been 37 years since the third Monday of January was made a national holiday, and in that short time the forces of consumerism have so far been unable to distract us from the day’s original meaning.
So far I haven’t seen boxes of MLK chocolates for sale at Ed’s Way. We haven’t yet associated Dr. King’s day with animals like reindeer and the Easter Bunny.
Dr. King delivered a sermon on Christmas Eve 1967, four months or so before he was murdered. In that sermon he promoted a kind of love that these days is, in my observation, mostly absent from the way we celebrate both Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Here is part of what he said:
“The Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word agape. Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship … it is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say it is the love of God operating in the human heart. When you rise to love on this level, you love all men not because you like them … but you love them because God loves them.”
There’s nothing wrong with romantic love or friendship love. If you have either or both, there’s a good chance that your holidays will bring you some joy. If you have neither, your days may very well be painful.
What Dr. King was talking about is a kind of love that our society, for the most part, no longer understands. Nowadays it’s all about me. We no longer “get it” because our societal boat has gotten unmoored from its religious dock and drifted away from the promotion of agape.
Dr. King wasn’t naïve. He once said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
He overcame the feeling of being “temporarily defeated” with a view from a spiritual mountain top that allowed him to declare, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
In that same sermon he said, “Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: We will meet your physical force with soul force.”
In these polarized times, the bridge over the cultural chasm is called agape.
One of Dr. King’s gifts to us is what he said about love that is very different from warm feelings or mutual attraction. He said:
I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
You have heard the saying, “win the battle but lose the war.”
You may remember Michelle Obama saying, “When they go low, we go high.”
In the short run agape might not win every battle. But Dr. King once declared, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”