Posted by on February 13, 2022

Sermon by Kenneth Padley at St Michael’s church, 13th February 2022

It’s all the fault of Geoffrey Chaucer. He is the one we have to thank for Valentine being promoted from one of the most obscure saints on the circuit into the global excuse for soppy sentimentalism that we celebrate tomorrow. Towards the end of the fourteenth century Chaucer, the famous Middle English writer, turned out a poem called The Parliament of Fowls. This poem describes a gathering of birds to choose their mates. For Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls was an allegory: he wrote it to mark the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Chaucer links the date of their engagement treaty (2nd May 1381) with the saint on whose day it fell. Quote,

‘For this was on seynt Volnatynys day

Whan every byrd cometh there to choose his mate’.

Now you will have noticed that the date of King Richard’s engagement in 1381 was not February 14th but May 2nd. Early May is a much more natural time than cold mid-February for birds to be pairing off. And it was on May 2nd that the Church marked the feast of Valentine, a little-known bishop of Genoa. It was only after the death of Chaucer that the conceptual link which he had forged between romantic love and the murky saint became transferred to February 14th. This was because February 14th was the feast day of two other nondescript Italian saints also going by the name of Valentine.

We know virtually nothing about any of these Saints Valentine. They certainly have no known links to romance. Nonetheless, over the years, the commercially-minded have spotted a business opportunity. By the eighteenth century in England, February 14th had become a date for the giving and receiving of handmade cards and gifts. And this tradition has exploded into the panoply of pink, fluffy, flowery and even rubbery objects that that will be exchanged tomorrow. Apparently, there are more cards sent for Valentine’s Day than any occasion except Christmas. 

Since we know nothing of the three saints called Valentine, might we say something instead about that virtue of the love which has become irrevocably associated with them? C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. In it he helpfully observes that the ancient Greeks had more than one word for ‘love’. As the Inuit are to snow, so the Greeks are to love. Each of these four Greek words gives us a prism into the great virtue of love. The Greeks would talk about eros which might be shown to one’s nearest and dearest. They would talk about phileia which equates to friendship and about storgē which is the affection given to our pets.

But the highest form of love for the Greeks is aagapē. Agapē is an overflowing, limitless, divine love. This is the quality which Jesus exhibits towards his followers and which he requires us in turn to embody in the world. On the night before he died Jesus taught his disciples about agapē. We read him saying in John chapter 15 that

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love… 13 No one has greater love [agapē] than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Agapē then is the love which Jesus displays on the cross. And agapē is the love which St Paul extols in the famous passage about love in thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. This is the reading you often hear at weddings. In this passage Paul writes that agapē is the greatest of the virtues.

4  [agapē] love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude… It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… 13 Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is agapē.

From the foregoing we understand love to be a God-given gift. However, the way in which love exhibits itself in humans and in God must be very different. Human love grows and develops in response to another. Human love is a reaction to the life of someone else or something else, to their needs, their character, their attitudes. Human love is symbiotic. It is mutual. It grows and ripens as we live less in our own lives and more in the lives of others.

God, however, is radically different. God cannot ‘feel’ love in the same way that we do. This is because God cannot feel anything in the same way that we do.

  • God exists outside time. He cannot be nudged into action because that would require him to be responsive to events in time. This means that God’s decision to create and to save is not an act of responsive love. It is simply an overflowing of who God is. That is exactly what agapē is trying to express, a super-abundant profusion of God’s creative and redeeming essence.
  • Just as God exists outside time, She also exists outside space. This means that God’s love cannot be concentrated more in one place than another, or rest more fully on one person than another. God’s love must be always and everywhere the same. This too is agapē, a limitless, undeserved perfection.

Although love must be very different in the creator than among Her creatures, it can help us understand something of the divine Mystery. I say this because, I believe, that love can help us comprehend how God is Trinity, three persons in one being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A God who exists outside time and space is supremely unified: She cannot be partitioned and She cannot vary from one moment to the next. This is why our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters struggle when Christians start to claim that there is Threeness in God. When confronted with this dilemma, St Augustine of Hippo unlocked the problem through his understanding of God as love.

Augustine realised that, if God is love, then there is something inherently dynamic in God. This is because love is not static. It is a process – albeit (as just discussed) it cannot in God be a temporal process. To talk of love requires a lover and a beloved. And so Augustine finds within the supreme oneness of God a subject and an object. And that, says Augustine, is what we know as Father and Son. God loves God’s self and, in this act, the first and second persons of the Trinity, Father and Son, are defined. Going further Augustine asserts the existence of a bond of love which flows between the first two persons. This is what Augustine understood to be the Holy Spirit and about which we shall sing later in our third hymn.

This is all rather highfalutin stuff. What might these ramblings about love say to our daily lives, irrespective of whether or not you plan to send me a Valentine’s card tomorrow? Surely it’s all very simple. Did not John Lennon insist that ‘all you need is love’?

Sadly, John Lennon was wrong. Or, at least, he was overly simplistic. Love is an amazing thing. It is the highest of the virtues. But as a moral compass, love is insufficient. It is not a law code from which we can read off the solution to any given challenge. Rather, we should think of love as a toolbox which we need to apply to the problems that confront us. When faced by an ethical dilemma, we still need to make wise choices about what love means in each distinct circumstance. And we still need steadfast will to act on the choices we make. Such choices and such actions are the day to day substance of Christian living as, inspired by the agapē which makes and redeems the world, we seek to embody love in our thoughts and words and deeds.


Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons