Like all good myths, the story of Saint Valentine is sketchy.
Some say he was martyred by Roman authorities for secretly performing Christian marriages. On soldiers. Soldiers who were meant to be single, according to Claudius the 2nd, aka Claudius the Goth. (Armies struggle with attachments). Another theory has that he was martyred, like other Christian leaders, for not bowing down to the Roman deities. Another that he prayed for the daughter of his jailer – who then was miraculously healed. Add to all this that there may have been as many as three Christians called Valentine all of whom were martyred.
Then there is Lupercalia. In 498 BCE Pope Gelasius chose February 14 as Valentine’s day, serendipitously(?) the day before the Roman fertility feast of Lupercalia. This feast being marked by inebriation, nakedness, and wild what-have-yous. The implication being that Gelasius was trying to clean up the lewdness on the 15th with the shining example of Valentine on the 14th. However, as the fates would have it, the two feasts over time combined. So, Valentine’s day became a celebration of love generally, whether of the committed or the casual kind. And we, for better or for worse, got Cupid, the son of Venus (a love goddess of the Lupercalian variety), with his archery exploits, decorating Valentine’s Day cards.
The cards have their own mythological origins, the popular one being that Valentine while in prison awaiting his execution, wrote a love letter to a woman and signed it, “From your Valentine.” The first Valentine’s card was reportedly a poem sent by Charles, the Duke of Orleans, to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. That card remains on display at the British Museum. By 1450, to be someone’s valentine was synonymous with being his or her sweetheart. By 1533, a valentine was synonymous with a piece of paper folded as a romantic card. By 1610, valentine gifts were also commonly given to sweethearts. And so, the stage was all set for the supporting of the commercial enterprises that now sell billions of cards, flowers, and presents in the name of love.
There are two ‘takeaways’ for me from this potted history. Firstly, at some point in time a man (probably called Valentine) allegedly made love a priority. And it cost him.
Secondly, love – albeit a broad word, with many manifestations – is important to the human spirit. Whether that be the love between a parent and child, between close friends, between siblings, between those married 50 years, or between those falling deeply in love for the last five days. Love is important. We want to celebrate it. It is part of the mix that gives meaning and purpose to our living.
Bob Fulghum tells this story:
“On a midsummer’s evening, in a farming village, southern France, my wife and I are guests at the celebration of the Feast of St John. When the first star could be seen in the night sky, the villagers lit a bonfire in a paddock, and a folk band began to play. In a universal two-step, couples danced, encircling the great fire – their only light. Lovely. A scene from a novel, a film, a hopeful imagination.
At the first intermission, the couples did not leave for refreshment, but stood staring into the bonfire. Suddenly an athletic young couple, holding each other tightly by the hand, ran and leaped high in the air through the fierce flames, landing safely just beyond the reach of the coals. As the crowd applauded, the two embraced and walked away, wearing expressions of fearful joy, having tempted the fates and emerged unscathed to dance once more. Make no mistake about it, what they had done was dangerous.
And it was this leaping through the fire that was at the heart of the Feast of St John.
It worked this way: if you were lovers, married or not, or even if you were friends, and you wanted to seal your covenant, you made a wish together that you would never part, and then you rushed the fire and jumped over while holding hands. It was said that the hotter the fire and the higher the flames, the longer and closer would be the companionship.
So, the young of heart and fleet of foot jumped early on; as the evening grew darker and the fire burned lower, the more cautious made their moves. Some did not clear the fire, some jumped too soon or too late, and some broke their grip.
Though there was much laughter and cheering and teasing, it was also very clear that this was ancient and serious business. Not just another party. Once a year, late in the night of high summer, with music and dance to lift the spirit, you took your love by the hand and tempted the fire of destiny.
At evenings end, when only glowing coals remained, there was played a traditional tune signalling a last dance. As the final note faded, the villagers encircled the soft glow of the embers and fell silent. The village couple married longest caught hands, and gracefully, solemnly, stepped together over what once was fire. At that signal of benediction, the villagers embraced and walked off into the starry night toward home.”[i]
I like this story. Unlike a Valentine’s card, it says that love is something that matters to the whole community, and is something that the whole community witnesses. This is the tradition of being married in the village church – where any member of the village could come and witness (to support or object). Marriage wasn’t an invitation-only event at some exotic restaurant or vineyard. It is also a tradition that says love needs a community to support it.
Secondly this story, in a gentle way, says you can be burnt by love. Love involves risk and courage. It also involves falling, sometimes falling apart, and sometimes getting hurt. Love can fracture. And fault can’t be laid solely on the couple. Sometimes its a combination of forces that pulls them apart. Sometimes its just bad luck. And sometimes one or both make their own bad luck.
And lastly this story says to me, that love needs discernment. The couple doing the leaping need to know themselves, know each other, know their capabilities and weaknesses, in order to judge when the right time is to leap and step through the fire.
When couples ask me what readings they should have at their wedding services I try to remain impartial. The Bible frankly is not a great resource book for weddings. The marriages in the Bible reflect the patriarchal norms of their cultures, and are not easily transferrable. The Bible does though give us some pointers about love.
The Song of Songs is a passionate love poem, full of risqué metaphors, that are not easy to translate into a modern ceremony. The lovers though are stepping outside of convention – meaning they probably weren’t married, and maybe were of different class or race from each other. The inclusion of this book into the Canon of Scripture is a reminder to us not to be too prescriptive or judgemental when it comes to love. When two people of whatever gender or background are deeply in love, their passion has a beauty all of its own.
The Book of Ruth has a much-used phrase in wedding liturgies: “I will go wherever you will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay…”[ii] This pledge is being made between two women, a daughter-in-law (Ruth) to a mother-in-law (Naomi).
Yet, I think it is apt for a wedding service. Given the context it is a very strong statement of commitment. Naomi’s material resources (including husband and sons) had been destroyed. She was destitute, and was returning to her people to, in effect, beg for enough not to starve. Ruth was choosing to go with her – away from Ruth’s extended family (and resources), away from Ruth’s Gods – to be with Naomi in her destitution. These women had been burnt by life, and against logic and common-sense Ruth was choosing to stay with Naomi.
The other popular reading for weddings is 1 Corinthians 13, our reading today. Again, the context is not marriage. Paul is talking about what the followers in Corinth (a group of maybe 16 people) should aspire to in their dealings with, in their being with, each other. Instead of aspiring to just be a teacher, leader, or healer, aspire above all to love. Instead of just thinking of yourselves connected to each other like a finger is to a hand, or a hair to a follicle, think of the connectedness as love. Love is the life of the body. Instead of thinking that the goal is to have great faith, or to make great sacrifices, or have great wisdom, strive instead – or rather, as I would say, allow yourself to fall instead – into love. Fall into kindness, into patience, into endurance. And unlike skills, wisdom, and all that stuff we think makes for success, love – this type of love – arohanui – endures. For as the community of St John would later say, this love is God – this love is the best word, thought, action, that reflects our understanding and experience of the divine.
These great Biblical love themes of prioritizing kindness and gentleness above all else; of costly commitment; and of uncontainable passion still ring true.
I used to give a gift as part of a wedding homily, back in the day when wedding homilies were expected, of a bucket and spade. The metaphor was that the couple were going forward building sandcastles together. Building careers, building a family, building trust… And then the tide comes in. All that building is swept away. A crisis! So, they begin rebuilding, maybe a little wiser this time. But again, the tide or the weather or whatever sweeps in. And again, they start to rebuild.
The metaphor says that relationships of love, of friendship, of marriage, of deep commitment – are about constructing and crises, about starting forward and being swept back by circumstances, about being in it together – learning again and again the artforms of kindness, patience, endurance, and what matters above all.
[i] Robert Fulghum, It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It, p.181ff.
[ii] Ruth 1:16