My first grader was putting the finishing touches on his class Valentines. With each one, he carefully wrote the name of the classmate under the word “To:” and then added his name under “From:” He punctuated each one with a red heart sticker. With each name, I asked him how he felt about each one. He was proud to make each one of his classmates happy, even the ones that bully him. For him, love remains beyond and deeper than love as marketed and portrayed on Feb 14. Love remains a vital function of living.
His delight in loving the 23 others in his class bought to mind the great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. What I learn from Levinas, who found a way to love even as a prisoner of the Nazis and having most of his family wiped out in the heat of antisemitic hate, was love happens in encountering the other in their infinity. Love demands us to accept those we encounter. Such love means giving the other presence, much like my son was delighting in making Valentines for fellow 6 and 7 year olds. Love was not a platonic idea that went only to the beautiful, powerful or the wealthy. Rather it is a need much like water, food or shelter, a need which we all need to live. We find, as John does in his profound epistles in the New Testament, that only in the face-to-face can we fully explain the mystery of Jesus Gospel of love.
Love, rather than a sweet sugary aside from the real course of life, is the key ingredient to life. The deprivation of love means death. When my son places a heart on his Valentine it is more than cute, he is tapping into the very essence of life itself. We are afraid of love for various reasons, so we turn it into a chocolate heart and push it aside. Then Jesus comes to be with us and we are reminded that only in love can we hope to live. The key question of faith is not existence but as Emmanuel Levinas says:
“Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.”
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