I spent a fair bit of my teen years reading Focus on the Family’s Brio, a now-defunct magazine aimed at teen girls as an alternative to Seventeen, YM, and other glossy periodicals whose vision of female adolescence involved the consumption of a great deal of clothes and makeup and the pursuit of the perfect prom dress--and perfect date to go with it.
While Brio was far more wholesome than the options available at every grocery checkout--on balance, I’m glad my parents kept my subscription active until I left for college--now that I’m grown I can see the ways in which Brio, and sources like it, filled my head with notions of romance that weren’t exactly biblical.
One feature article in Brio presented the biblical book of Ruth as a model of godly romance. Ruth waited for Boaz to take notice of her, so that particular interpretation went, and kept herself busy in the meantime, and God rewarded her by giving her a wealthy new husband and, not long after, a baby.
But later--after I’d finished a degree in biblical studies and married a man with several degrees in biblical studies--I realized that this reading of Ruth was all wrong. Ruth wasn’t waiting around for Boaz to notice her. She was busy taking care of her mother-in-law, Naomi. And when the time seemed right, Ruth proposed to Boaz.
This certainly wasn’t like anything I’d read in my Christian teen magazines.
The most startling part of the story, though, is that when Ruth has her baby, Obed, she places him in Naomi’s lap, and the women of the city rejoice that “a son has been born to Naomi,” who, you may remember, had lost both her sons and her husband and was well past the age of childbearing. Ruth’s story isn’t one of romantic fulfillment as we’d imagine it--it’s about true love bearing fruit that blesses others.
(And let’s not forget that Ruth, the mother of Obed, is in the line of Christ--a woman whose faithfulness ended up blessing the world!)
Ruth and Boaz’s story is much less about their romance than about their faithfulness to God and to the kind of loving-kindness that characterizes God himself. Ruth stays with Naomi even though it’s unlikely she’ll find another husband, and the two of them will have to get by on the leftovers Ruth can glean from other people’s fields. Boaz marries Ruth even though she’s from the tribe of Moab--a people that had refused hospitality to the Israelites fleeing Egypt. If there is love in this story, it’s not exactly the kind that’s featured in most romantic comedies--it’s a hospitable love; a love that’s about much more than two people gazing adoringly into one another’s eyes.
It’s a love that makes room for others.
In their excellent book on marriage, Are You Waiting For ‘The One’?, Margaret Kim Peterson and her husband Dwight Peterson briefly recount the story of a young couple whose Valentine’s Day plans were interrupted because of a death in one of their families. They had expected to spend the evening of February 14th enjoying an evening out, and instead they spent it on the road, headed to a funeral. But perhaps, in spending Valentine’s Day that way, they learned something of what the Petersons mean when they speak of ‘Christian marriage.’ Many Christians, they say, think of marriage as “something that exists for their own benefit and for that of their spouse,” but the biblical vision of marriage is something else entirely, they say:
“Scripture presents marriage as a form or image of Christian community…characterized by hospitality.”
While some churches (including the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, and Eastern Orthodox churches) recognize the feast of St. Valentine, the origins of Valentine’s Day are shrouded in mystery. According to one legend, in 3rd century Rome, the emperor Claudius II ruled that soldiers should no longer be married; they performed better if they were not married. It is said that a priest named Valentine secretly married couples anyway, and was eventually discovered and put to death.
In another legend, Valentine is a Christian imprisoned (possibly for his faith) who falls in love with the daughter of his jailer, who is blind. He is said to have been martyred as well, but not before the jailer and his whole family--44 people in all--became Christians. His final letter to the jailer’s daughter was reportedly signed “from your Valentine.” In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 ‘St. Valentine’s Day,’ but it wasn’t until many years later that this day came to be marked in many countries as a day for celebrating romantic love.
There is nothing wrong with setting aside a special day to celebrate being a couple; to enjoy being with the person you love. But it may also be valuable to remember that Valentine’s Day--and married love more generally--may look different from what magazines and greeting cards suggest. If the Bible and Christian history have anything to say, it’s less about candlelit tables for two than making room at the table for others; less about waiting for perfect love to find you and more about seeking to love others, even when it is costly.
Even when it costs everything.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Denise Johnson