Saturday, February 14, 2009

From Your Valentine

St. Valentine
(Icon by Aidan Hart)

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Valentine. The surrounding culture, of course, is busying itself in its annual frantic and expected expressions of “luv”, through the flowers, the chocolates, the cards, etc. It’s a good bet that most folks don’t acknowledge or even know exactly why they give special attention to “love” on February 14, which should find expression every day of our lives.

Key to this day is the figure of St. Valentinus of Rome. Manifold legends have circulated about him through the centuries. The first representation of Saint Valentine seems to have appeared in a book entitled The Nuremberg Chronicle, a picture book printed in 1493. The text that accompanies the woodcut picture of him states that he was a third century Roman priest, martyred during the reign of Claudius II. That seems to be confirmed by other sources, which also claim that he took the risk of boldly assisting Christian martyrs at a time when that was considered a crime. Eventually he was arrested, questioned, and imprisoned for some time. Some say that the prefect tried to buy him off and that Valentinus refused. Others say that, at one point, he attempted to convert Claudius, which didn’t go down well. It’s almost universally agreed that on or about February 14 in either 269 or 270, Valentinus was beaten and then beheaded, apparently outside the Flaminian Gate, later called the Porta Valentini, and currently, the Porta del Popolo. Pope Julius I is said to have built a small church near the Ponte Mole, about 4.5 miles north of Rome on the Via Flaminia, in Valentinus’ honor shortly thereafter. The relics of Valentinus’ bones are said to be preserved in the Church of Santa Prassede in Rome.

There is also a legend that while awaiting his execution, Valentinus befriended his jailer's blind daughter whose sight he restored. We can only surmise that through this shared experience their friendship blossomed into a loving regard for each other. According to Alfonso Villiegas, who wrote a book on the saints, the jailer, one of the Emperor's lieutenants, was named Asterios. He and his family were converted to Christianity by Valentinus, and were also condemned to death by Claudius II. According to legend, on the eve of Valentinus' death, he wrote a farewell message to the jailer's daughter and signed it, A tuo Valentino = from your Valentinus (or Valentine, as we call him). Well, as the Native Americans are sometimes wont to say when recalling their legends: “I don’t know if this really happened, but I do know the story is true.

So, Valentine’s Day has come to be a yearly celebration of renewing love and friendship. It could have developed as a Christian alternative or reaction against the pagan celebrations of the Lupercalia, which the 1st cent. historian Plutarch described as “a time [when] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

Valentine’s feast, therefore, celebrates a fairly obscure human being whose importance lay in the fact that he loved and valued even one person, and probably many others. It is cause for our celebration, too, because though we, too, may be undistinguished and rather obscure, yet we’re very important people because we have loved or been loved in our life.
The Eucharist is itself an expression, an indication, of celebrating and renewing love and friendship for believers because they recognize that they are loved by Another who is also their God. Paul reminds us, in his first letter to the Corinthians, how the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, is a sacramental expression of Christ’s love in the real lives of His Body, the Church. In Chapter 13, Paul spells out the meaning behind those four letters: LOVE. He says that without love you can do a lot of impressive things, which still ring hollow; that love isn’t a game for children, but an adventure, a search, a way of life for growing women and men who are concerned about each other. Today, more than ever, we might well agree with Paul: that in this life there are three great lasting qualities: faith and hope, though these seem fairly dim in our present circumstances. But the greatest and most enduring is love. St. Julian of Norwich beautifully expresses why this is: “...before God made us, [God] loved us...In this love God has done all God’s works, and in this love God has made all things beneficial to us, and in this love our life is everlasting...And all this we shall see in God without end...

As if to reaffirm Julian’s view, Mark, in his Gospel, recounts a story from Jesus’ ministry. A leper, one of society’s outcasts, comes begging Jesus, kneeling before him: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” With attention to detail, Mark says that Jesus displays great emotional compassion towards the man, that he reaches towards the leper and touches him, then says: “I do choose. Be made clean!” As in all Scripture there’s a deeper level of meaning than just the words, and the meaning which comes through here is that Jesus, whose very nature as the Word of the Father is Love, because of that, always chooses healing for us over affliction, always chooses comfort for us rather than pain, always chooses good for us rather than evil. We get the impression that the now cleansed leper is so overwhelmed by the love with which Jesus treats him that he simply can’t contain himself, can’t go along with even Jesus‘ stated wish that the man “say nothing to anyone”. Mark says, “He went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word...” that he has felt the love of Another who is God, and that he, the restored leper, now feels compelled to share that love with others.

That is the call of one who follows Christ: in the name of the Love that created us, and of Jesus the Love that sustains us, and of the Holy Spirit, the Love which unites us in loving one another.

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