Vocabulary is a fascinating phenomenon because all of language is symbolic. The letters we form into words take the place of the concrete reality we're discussing. But the words themselves are quite arbitrary. More than 420 years ago, Shakespeare's Juliet claimed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Yet, nowadays, the definitions of some words appear to be changing rapidly and dramatically. Some have lost their true meaning by being usurped for something else. Others have come to mean the direct opposite of what they used to be. Saddest of all are the words that have become so commonplace and overused that, for all intents and purposes, it's difficult to know what they stand for anymore. Here are three examples that come to mind.
No, a lifesaver is not a piece of candy. The sweet treat is shaped to resemble the real lifesaver, which is a floatation device designed to save the life of a victim who has fallen into deep water and needs rescuing. The confection version might prevent our bad breath from offending other people, but it certainly would not be the lifesaver we would toss overboard if a fellow passenger were drowning.
The only person who comes to mind when we see the word Lucifer is Satan. But the Devil was not the intended recipient of this foreboding nomenclature. Quite the opposite. The name is a Latin derivative, which means light bearer; someone who is holding up a lamp against the blindness of the night so that others can see the correct path clearly and not stumble or fall. Lucifer, we should recall, began his existence as an archangel, the antithesis of what he chose to become by turning his back on God. His evil ways transformed the word Lucifer from a beacon of enlightenment into the Prince of Darkness.
Last December, I was searching for an affordable gift in anticipation of the upcoming Christmas season. I decided to shop at a discount store hoping they would have a larger selection to choose from and a reasonable price. As the electronic door swung open to welcome me, the very first product I saw was a red, satin-wrapped box of chocolates with the words Happy Valentine's Day scrolled across the front. We were not even finished with Advent or purchasing Christmas trees or popping champagne corks for the January New Year but already there were shelves filled with displays of heart-shaped affection for a mid-February date. And they were on sale!
We know that merchants must anticipate certain festivities to expand their profit margin. But what are we really celebrating on the 14th of February each year? The short answer is love. What is love? According to the most recent automobile ads, love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru. Really? We might want to question the validity of this definition of love. What would happen, let's say, if we purchased a new Crosstrek Limited with moonroof and then missed a few monthly payments? Would the financing organization tell us not to worry because this dealership is all about love? Not at all. We can rest assured that love would not appear on the scene as quickly as a repo truck would pull into our driveway to tow that new vehicle away.
So, which definition of love will we celebrate this month? St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose feast we celebrate 18 days before the feast of St. Valentine, insisted that true love was more of a decision than an emotion. True love, he said, is an act of the will. Love, according to Aquinas' definition, is willing the good of another, of deciding what's best for them, of choosing whatever will promote their welfare. And if we love our neighbor as ourselves this same definition can be applied to our welfare, too. Feelings aside, what positive decisions can we make this month that further the welfare, the goodness of someone else? Sorry Subaru but you have it wrong! Other-centered decisions are what true love is all about. These are the Valentines which will come back to bless us over and over again.
For Holy Homework:
Let's wait until the half-off sales of February 15 have arrived and then purchase two heart-shaped boxes of sugar-free dark chocolates for the price of one. Let's give the first away and treat ourselves to the other. And we can offer a prayer of thanks to God in memory of St. Valentine and St. Thomas Aquinas for giving us this special day and this profound meaning of love.
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