My daughter Abilene is in pre-Kindergarten. They are learning about St. Valentine and she wanted to know more. So, naturally, I turned to Wikipedia.
Turns out that there may not be any one St. Valentine, but the earliest depiction of a St. Valentine is of a Roman priest, Valentinius, during the time of Claudius II who was martyred for serving sacramental rights to Christians when doing such things was illegal. In particular, he is known for administering the sacrament of marriage.
On way to think about Valentine’s Day is that we celebrate a feast devoted to romantic love in honor of a saint who was martyred for marrying Christians at a time when that was illegal.
Naturally, I began to wonder, who would St. Valentine be marrying today? The dispute du jour over same-sex marriage (or other variations of human matrimony) suggests that perhaps St. Valentine would be marrying his GLBT friends. Is there any more reason for Christians to prohibit this group from marrying than there was for Claudius to prohibit Christians from marrying?
There is a very lively debate in almost every denomination of Christian faith about whether or not non-traditional marriages are to be blessed with the sacrament of marriage. This is entirely separate from the political debate about whether or not values rooted in a certain religious tradition should guide the law of the land. I want to address the broader political question, but what about the purely Christian perspective?
Traditionally, Christians have interpreted marriage as a sacrament affirmed only between a man and a woman, but why? First, there is a traditional belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Probably the clearest, direct condemnation of homosexuality is from Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (NRSV). But other passages usually taken to condemn homosexuality include it among a number of other sexual sins (Num 25:1-9, Rom 1:18-32, 1 Cor 10:6-9). There is certainly no indication from these passages that one ought to condemn long-term, monogamous, same-sex relationships. Nonetheless, it has been traditional to see homosexuality and transgendered sexuality as a deviance from the norm and therefore not to be honored through the blessing of marriage.
But I think this confuses things. What Christians should recognize about the sacrament of marriage is that it is an honor, a blessing. Marriage means something. It has a spiritual significance that goes beyond a merely civil union or domestic partnership. This is what Christians should mean when they talk about the “sanctity of marriage.”
Marriage is sacred because it symbolizes a commitment to real, sacramental, flesh and blood love and devotion. It is a gift and a reminder of how precious life is. With marriage, two people commit to love each other romantically and fully. No matter what. Until the day they die. That’s not bullshit. This is why Christians should think that divorce and adultery are so tragic: they violate a real and meaningful union.
This view of marriage is what the prayer from Hebrews reminds us.
Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid; What can anyone do to me?” (13:4-6)
In marriage, two people find earthly shelter and a warm body in the night. We need that shelter to remind us that we are not alone and things will work out alright. Also, devoting your life to one person is an exercise in humility, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. So it seems to me that, as Christians, we should welcome those who want to demonstrate what true, sacramental, devoted, holy, and lifelong love looks like.
The issue of how to administer the sacraments is rightly difficult for the Christian community. But it should only be difficult as an internal debate about how to interpret the sacraments of faith. When we turn to society at large, there is simply no justification for standing in the way of committed lovers who want to publicly devote themselves to one another. We should see the act of marriage as a small window into eternity. Whether or not a religious institution puts its stamp on it, taking a promise for a lifetime is about as close as human beings can come to manifesting the love we believe extends to us from a personal creator. It is something to celebrate, not condemn.