Today, of course, is Valentines Day, as well as being the last Sunday before Lent. I've been doing a little digging - to see what I could find out about the origins of Valentine's Day. As a matter of sheer fact, it might interest you to know that very little is known about it at all!. The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those, he said, "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." As Gelasius implied, nothing was known, even then, about the lives of any of these martyrs. The reason why St Valentine has become the focus of romantic love is one of those mysteries...no-one really knows. Certainly there is no history that links Valentine with love. He appears to have been a martyr who was be-headed because he would not deny Christ...and there is a legend about him healing his jailer's daughter before his death. But that's about it.
In the very distant past, there was a pagan, Roman festival called Lupercalia, which celebrated the she-wolf who had suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was celebrated on the 15th of February, and included all sorts of fun and games...and no doubt a certain amount of, shall we say, 'romancing' used to take place between the young men and women of Rome. It may simply be that the feast-day of the largely unknown St Valentine was closest to the ancient love-fest of Lupercalia...and the two have become entwined. Who knows?
Nevertheless, we are where we are...Valentine's day has become linked to the notion of romantic love...spurred on by the card-printers and present-makers...so that now, all around the western world, lovers of every age are desperately running around trying to find some small token of love....preferably one that they haven't found in a previous year. It's quite a challenge, isn't it?!
So I hope you will forgive me if I pass over the notion of Valentine's Day. Some churches will be using today as a chance to celebrate marriage...but we are going to have our own celebration in three Sunday's time, at the wedding of Perry and Megan, to which you are all invited. So, I'm going to save up my own reflections on marriage for that occasion.
Let's focus instead on the set reading for today...the story of the Transfiguration. In many ways it is almost as mysterious a story as the origin of Valentine's day. Let's attempt to unpack it together...
The first thing to say about this story is that it describes a typical 'mountain-top' experience. It's one of those defining moments when the world seems to stop spinning for a while...and when those who are caught up in the experience are confronted with something new, something defining for the rest of their journey. It's like a hiker who, along the path, finds himself at the top of a hill - able to see where he has been, and where he is to go.
In this experience, the disciples find themselves caught up in an event which underscores the whole ministry of Jesus. There is a view back through history - as Jesus meets with people who have been part of the story of the past...Moses and Elijah, and is affirmed by them. And then there's a peering into the future, as God's voice from heaven confirms again who Jesus is, and the importance of his mission. "This is my son, the Chosen One...listen to him!"
The disciples who have accompanied Jesus to the mountain-top are having the time of their lives. They don't want to leave...and they even suggest building shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. They seem to want to capture the moment, and stay in it forever. But the thing about mountain-top experiences is - you have to come down from them again. Discipleship involves following, and going on. As much as the Disciples were awed and impressed by what they had seen, they still had much to learn about being true followers. Despite seeing Jesus transfigured before his very eyes, Peter still denies Jesus. Despite seeing a vision of heaven, James and John still argue about who will be the greatest in a very earthly kind of kingdom.
Only later, after further following, the grief of the cross and the joy of the resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit - only later would the disciples be ready to speak their witness to what God had done in Jesus.
Have you ever had a mountaintop experience? You know, one of those experiences that blows your mind - something you'll always remember? I've had a few. I've been at fantastic worship events, where emotion has overwhelmed me. I've been at family celebrations, which I will always remember. And I've had literal mountain-top experiences - moments of breathing in the cool air and amazing views at the top of various hills and peaks. The thing about mountains, though, is that after you've climbed them, and after you've drunk-in the view, you have to come down them again.
Despite the fact that I've said we're not going to think too much about Valentine's Day, it does occur to me that weddings are pretty good examples of mountain-top experiences. For weeks, months, or even years (sometimes) people look forward to their wedding day. Everything has to be perfect...the music, the dress, the cake, the food...it's all vitally important. And then, at the wedding itself...as I well remember...you find yourself caught up into one of those mountaintop experiences. Your senses are totally alert. Your senses of sound, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all go into over-drive. You become determined to drink in every moment.
But you have to come down the mountain again. The next day, there are bills to be paid, journeys to be made. New wives discover that their new husbands have smelly feet! And new husbands discover that their wives are not quite as attractive in the morning as they were the night before! Reality comes flooding in, and life has to be faced again.
Mountain-top experiences are part of life - and they are often part of the life of faith. Amazing worship experiences perhaps. Or times of retreat and prayer in which God seems so close, so intimate...times when we break through what a famous mystic called 'the cloud of unknowing' and seem to touch the face of God. Some people spend their whole lives trying to regain such experiences. Mystics and saints have lived lives of ever increasing discipline and piety in the hope of touching, once more, the face of God.
But faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment of time...and trying to live in it forever. Faithfulness, and true discipleship, is achieved by following on in confidence that God is leading...and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced. You have to come down the mountain again...and take what has been seen, learned and experienced on with you...on into the journey.
My hope is that our Sunday services are a little bit like mountain-top experiences. They are a moment in the week when we come together to experience God together, and through each other. They are a couple hours in the week when we climb the mountain, and look beyond ourselves, beyond our day to day lives, and briefly touch the face of God.
But we have to come down the mountain. We have to keep following on...following God into our every-day lives...taking what we have said, done and experienced with us. We allow our worship, the words we say, the actions we do, to permeate our daily lives...colouring them, perfuming them. Because of our mini-mountaintop experience we somehow live lives that are more infused with meaning, more alert to what God is doing in our lives, and through us in the lives of others.
One of the things I hear most often as a priest are the immortal words "you don't have to go to church to be a Christian". Of course you don't...but it helps! Through being together, like the disciples on the mountain-top, we get to drink together from The Source....we get to be inspired for the next week...we get to eat food for the journey.
But its never about the mountain-top...its always about the journey. It should never be about the Sunday Service...it should always be about the day-by-day service...the giving of service to our families, our co-workers, our friends and our neighbours. Inspired at the mountain-top, we go back into the valley to bring the light of Christ to everyone we meet.
So, as we shall say at the very end of this service: Go, in the peace of Christ, to love and serve the world.