Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Happy St Valentine's Day!

You can hardly miss the fact that today is St Valentine's Day (though the St part of that often gets dropped). Although dropped from the Roman calendar in favour of Ss Cyril and Methodius, the Slavic co-patrons of Europe, St Valentine's day is well and truly established on the calendar of the commercial/secular calendar.

What do we know about St Valentine? Well, virtually nothing for sure. Pope Gelasius I, who was a bit of an authority on early saints, simply lists him as one of "those whose names are reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." It is not even very clear which St Valentine is the one being celebrated, as the name Valentine is attributed to three different martyrs of the third century; one a priest in Rome, one a Bishop from Terni in Italy, and one a north African martyr. And yet, in medieval England, the saint had a great following, and it is through the legends invented in the fourteenth century that this saint became connected with romantic love. There is an ancient basilica in Rome dedicated to the saint, and interestingly, relics which were exhumed from the Catacomb of St Hippolytus were identified as those of St Valentine, and they were donated to the Whitefriar St Carmelite Church in Dublin, which has a shrine to the saint.

One of the connections is that this day was - in the pagan Roman calendar - a feast of Juno, the Queen Goddess. She was goddess of women and of marriage. After this day began the feast of Lupercalia. At this feast, boys and girls drew lots to pair them up, and they would be paired up for the duration of the feast. As with most pagan feasts, they were christianised. There are those who object to our celebrations of feasts - most notably Christmas - because they say they are pagan feasts. But, just as Jesus Christ was God who assumed our sinful human condition, so the Church took pagan feasts and transformed them into celebrations of the Christian mysteries. This even included using some of the symbolisms of paganism but purifying them, and transforming them into Christian symbols. This is part of our 'incarnational' approach to culture and faith. Part of the problem in contemporary western society is that we have seen the divorce of culture (way of life) and faith (way of believing), such that culture - and this feast is an example - has returned to being pagan, and faith is separated out as a specialist interest of the few, characterised often in the media as the loony few. Notice how the media treat religious conviction as dangerous, and as a source of conflict in our safe rational world.

One legend of St Valentine relates to his subversion of the Emperor Claudius' decree forbidding marriage, as it was discouraging soldiers from going to war. Valentine arranged secret marriages for Christian couples, and helped the martyrs, and thus found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was thus martyred for his support of Christian marriage and freedom. So today is a good time to ask his intercession - whichever St Valentine it is we are asking - for the defence of Christian marriage and the freedom to defend it in our neo-pagan society.

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