The centre point of February is St Valentine’s Day celebrated on the 14th. Card shops are already displaying the huge range of cards with romantic images and messages. Florists will be placing their orders and the growers either under glass or, mostly, in mainland Europe will be adjusting the growing conditions to ensure the blossoms peak at just the right moment. Of all those involved in the industry that has grown around St Valentine I guess it is the plant nurseries for whom this will be the biggest event of the year. The custom of exchanging cards and appropriate gifts at this and a few other annual events (especially Christmas) has grown exponentially. The days when we were told that electronic messaging would save our forests as we became paperless seem further away now than ever! The cost of packaging and transport on the environment is considerable.
But, St Valentine must be honoured and celebrated for his encouragement of love and romance. Except that he wouldn’t in any way recognise what has happened in his name. I thought it time that I looked him up. So I went to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, so much more reliable than the internet but a bit more costly on trees perhaps. It seems there were two men named Valentine listed in the ancient texts of Roman martyrs whose deaths are celebrated on 14 February but no dates for their lives and death are recorded. One was a priest martyred during the time of Claudius (who was Roman Emperor 41 – 54AD) the other a bishop who was martyred at Rome. The records of both are sketchy and most scholars think in fact there was only one. “Neither of them seems to have any clear connection with lovers or courting couples” (Oxford Dictionary p 388)
St Valentine appears then to be an unremarkable senior Christian clergyman who was martyred for his faith. By ‘unremarkable’ I am not intending to dismiss the sincerity and integrity of his faith which was no doubt linked to his murder. All I am saying is that he left no written records or concrete evidence of outstanding contribution to the Christian church. As far as I can find out there is no Church of England building dedicated to him unlike the many dedicated to Mark, Luke, Mary, Paul etc. It seems most likely that the link with love and romance has come the other way around. There are ancient traditions that suggest birds in the northern hemisphere chose their mates in mid February prior to nesting and laying their eggs somewhere around the beginning of Lent. (not eating eggs during Lent was originally a way of protecting the breeding season rather than religious fasting) . It seems the modern commercial celebration of St Valentine owes much more to pagan religions than the Christian saint whose name is now at its heart.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water however. Having a day in the year when we celebrate the gift of human love is surely a good thing. I cannot deny that when I was told that we needed to change the time or date of our Church Council which was scheduled for 14 February I didn’t mind postponing it. Dinner at home with my wife or chairing Church Council. I’ll let the reader decide which is preferable. I was careful to use the phrase ‘the gift of love’ because I am concerned that the emphasis on Valentine is exclusively about romance and stereo typical relationships, there is so much more to love than that. The Methodist Church in Britain has had a group working for some years to produce a report on marriage and relationships in Britain today which we will discuss in some detail in a couple of months in our circuit. (14 or 15 May, Emmanuel and Catshill resp) Details to follow.
Whether you are on your own or with others on 14 February I hope you will be able to pause and give thanks to God for the gift of human love and the moments when you have been able to give and receive it.