Sudbury faith: Agape is the most intense type of love there is

The ancient Greeks had four different words to describe love

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After coming through another Valentine’s Day, we may wonder just what the purpose of it all was. The downside to yesterday’s celebrations is that it often leaves us with the feeling of being a commercialized event. The sales of cards, gifts, and flowers apparently rise as people attempt to show how much they care about each other. 

I suspect it gives those vendors a boost in the mid-winter slack period. I mean, what else sells this time of year? Heavy outerwear, snow shovels, skates, salt, and sand? Not exactly romantic material. Plus it’s rather difficult to sell romanticized items when we have winter on our minds.

But isn’t Valentine’s Day supposed to be more than about offsetting a slow purchasing season? And who picked a day in the dead of winter anyway?  

What we often forget is that such traditions come from long ago, and carry their own history. Valentine’s began as a church commemoration of St. Valentine who lived about 1,700 years ago and may have even been two people with the same name. There are a variety of stories about Valentine originating in the Roman empire, little of which can be wholly verified, but the point of his sainthood was because of the love he (or they) had for persecuted people. And so the day marking St. Valentine’s death became about the love he shared. In time, it became more romanticized, especially as it came at about the same time as a Roman festival celebrating young love.  

Now love is kind of a funny thing. It’s a huge theme in the Bible, which is mostly about God’s love for humans and stories of our relationship with God. But that kind of love isn’t exactly the same as other kinds of love. While we might comment on how much we love a certain type of dessert, for example, we rarely mean it in the same way as telling a romantic partner that we love them. The ancient Greeks understood this rather well as they had four different words to describe what we mean in using our single English word “love”. 

“Eros” is passionate love, with sensual desire and longing; an intimate form of love, the kind we think of when talking about romance. “Philia” describes what we might term brotherly love; the kind of feelings one has for close friends and a community. “Storge” referred to the love in a family, between a parent and child or between siblings. 

And then there is “Agape”, or unconditional love, considered to be the truest form of love by the ancient Greeks. Agape is the word used in the Greek versions of those famous verses from 1 Corinthians 13, popular at many a Christian wedding.  

As I mentioned before, love is a huge theme in the Bible. You have that romantic love as seen in several Old Testament stories and The Song of Solomon. A love for the neighbour is shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan, among other places. Family love in the Bible comes out most fully in the stories of a variety of families who followed God’s lead in their lives.  

All of these tie into a love for God. The wonderful thing about a love for God is that out of that love flows all the other types of love. When we feel we have received this love for God, we love others in the variety of ways one can love. The word Agape describes the purest form of love. 1 Corinthians 13 delves into what that means on a daily basis. Although often used in the romantic sense, it is wider and deeper than that.  

So often Valentine’s Day appears geared to people who have someone special in their lives, which isn’t a bad thing, but overlooks those who live in different circumstances. God’s love, Agape, moves beyond all that, as even St. Valentine’s ministry to the suffering will attest. So if you are in a wonderfully loving relationship, certainly celebrate that love. But whether you are in a close relationship or not, we all need to know that we are loved regardless, by God who cares deeply about each of us.  

Rev. Charles Nolting is based at New Hope Lutheran Church.

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