In the musical production of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife, “Do you love me?” She struggles to answer him: “For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house…” Tevye is not satisfied. “But do you love me?” he asks repeatedly.
The expression of true love in the nitty-gritty of daily living is many-faceted. Certainly the things we do for others are demonstrations of our love, but there must be something more, something that will communicate our love in such a powerful way that there will be no need to ask that question: But do you love me?
Some years ago I was privileged to witness one such powerful way of sharing love. When my daughter was attending a Catholic university, she lived in a student residence run by an order of nuns. At one particular event, the residence administrator, Sister Celeste, made a point of greeting every single guest. I will never forget how she did it. As she approached each person, though it was only for less than a minute, it seemed as if everything else faded away for her - the room, the other guests, the exhaustion she may have felt after a hectic day. She was completely present to the person before her and the only thing that was between them, or rather uniting them, was the unmistakable love that flowed from her heart.
I think this is the way Jesus loved. Scripture tells us that he “emptied himself” when he accepted death on the cross (Phil. 3:7). We understand that this was his ultimate sacrifice, motivated by true love for us. Gospel stories, however, show us that Jesus also “emptied himself” each time he met a person. Ignoring all other distractions, he concentrated on the one individual before him, effectively saying: At this moment I am with you. I see your heart, your pain, your worries…and I want to tell you that you are truly loved. For people like Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, the paralytic and many others, this was a life-changing encounter with true love.
Thus Jesus taught us that true love calls us to “empty ourselves” and to be completely present to another. Saint Valentine was one Christian who understood this way of loving. Arrested for disobeying the decree of a wicked emperor, Valentine found himself in prison, facing death by execution. There he met a young blind girl, the jailer’s daughter. Disregarding his own precarious situation, he chose to focus on her. They talked. He listened with kindness and sympathy. He prayed for her. Then a miracle happened. Not only was the girl’s sight restored, but the painful sadness in her heart vanished and joy took its place. Through her encounter with Valentine, she discovered the true love of God.
What does this mean for those of us who have the responsibility of nurturing children, whether we be mothers or fathers, grandparents or teachers? Amidst the many obligations and pressures of our ordinary busy days, a child stands before us. This moment is an opportunity to simply stop, empty ourselves, as Jesus did, and to be with the child. Does he want to share a hurt? A fear? Or an excitement? Is she seeking sympathy, affirmation, direction or just a little attention? This little moment, ordinary as it seems, has the potential to leave the child with the assurance of being seen and heard and truly loved. Moreover, consciously or not, it instills in the child an enduring awareness of what it means to love.
It is customary on Valentine’s Day to give chocolates, flowers and paper hearts as tokens of our love. But chocolates are eaten up, flowers fade and paper hearts are, after all, only paper. The real and lasting tokens of our love are those precious everyday moments when we choose to be completely present to another. It is then that we can best communicate the true love that flows through us from Jesus Christ.
by Cornelia Mary Bilinsky, author of the recently released children's book The Legend of the First Valentine.
image: Laura Ockel for Unsplash: