February 13, 2015

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

New movie is a ‘far cry’ from Christ’s vision of authentic human love

Sean GallagherIt can be hard to see a serious side to Valentine’s Day. The way it is portrayed and promoted in society, it’s really not much deeper than the cards, roses and chocolates that lovers often exchange on Feb. 14.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no seriousness at all to this annual holiday celebrating romantic love.

Valentine’s Day is rooted, at least in part, in the feast of St. Valentine. He was a third-century Roman priest who ministered to his fellow Christians imprisoned for their faith, and who eventually laid down his own life as a martyr rather than renounce his faith in Christ.

It’s hard to get more serious than that.

Catholics and other Christians reminding society at large of the seriousness of love on Valentine’s Day can, however, make us all seem like killjoys.

This doesn’t—and, indeed, shouldn’t—be the case. When Christ took on human nature when he was conceived of the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he became fully human like each one of us in all things but sin.

Coming to understand the nature of love through the example of Christ necessarily involves some difficult things. But the love that he embodied is a truly human love.

He shows us that humility, self-giving and sacrifice are at the heart of true love. Putting our own desires aside to attend to what is truly good for those whom we love can sometimes be hard.

That’s because of the ongoing effects of original sin that are deeply ingrained into our hearts and minds. Like Adam and Eve in their fall, we often instinctually seek to assert our will over and against God’s will for us and what is good for those around us.

The grace of Christ can help us not only overcome these tendencies toward selfishness, but actually help us experience a deep and long-lasting joy when we, at least for a while, sacrifice our own desires in loving care of our friends, relatives and even complete strangers.

Sometimes we experience that joy when we and our beloved take time to enjoy each other’s company in a night on the town. Moments like this so typical of Valentine’s Day are good as far as they go, and we should therefore have no qualms in embracing them.

At other times, the joy of living Christ’s sacrificial love in our own daily lives dawns in our hearts when we step back, look inside our hearts and see the life of Christ blossoming there. Our grace-inspired self-giving can then become palpable and intense.

So there’s plenty of reasons why Christ’s vision for love should be marked by a joy that can attract people closer to him and the Church.

Yes, we Catholics take love seriously all year long. But we do that because we know the greatness of the joy of salvation to which it leads.

This year, though, there’s a bit more seriousness than usual to society’s observance of Valentine’s Day. Sadly, though, it’s a seriousness bereft of joy.

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey, which will premiere across the country on Valentine’s Day weekend, suggests that sexual self-assertion and its flip side—the manipulation, abuse and domination of one’s partner—is, at the very least, an acceptable form of human behavior.

That’s a far cry from the Gospel view that humble, self-giving love is at the apex of the human experience.

The book by British writer E.L. James on which this movie is based has sold more than 100 million copies. So its story seems to be striking a chord with many people in society.

This is a sad fact for those of us who have embraced Christ’s vision of authentic human love, which now seems so counter-cultural. But if we continue to believe that it is true, good and beautiful, we should not be discouraged by the present popularity of views so clearly contrary to it.

Simply continue to seek with the help of God’s grace to embody this joyful vision of love on Valentine’s Day and every other day of the year.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

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