Text Mark 9.2-9 - The Mount of Transfiguration
Today, of course, is
Valentine’s Day, as well as being the first Sunday of Lent. I've been doing a
little digging - to see what I could find out about the origins of Valentine's
Day. It might interest you to know that
very little fact is known about it at all! The feast of St. Valentine was first
established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among a list of
early church martyrs. According to
Gelasius, Valentine was one of those martyrs "... whose names are justly
reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." As Gelasius implied, nothing was known about
Valentine, even a couple of hundred years after his death.
Quite why St Valentine has
become the focus of romantic love is one of those mysteries...no-one really
knows. Certainly there is no factual
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. There is one story, from the 1400s (a
thousand years after Valentine’s death) that he was arrested for performing
secret marriages of soldiers – who the Roman army preferred to keep celibate,
to be better fighting men. But that is a
highly dubious story.
There’s one other potential
connection worth exploring. The Romans
had a 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?!
In the light of this lack of
information about Valentine, it would be relatively easy to dismiss the whole
story as worthless myth – and to refuse to have anything to do with it at
all. But that would be to miss the point
of myth. Myths and fables may not be
literally, factually, historically true.
But they always contain truth. We
should always be careful not to confuse fact with truth. Facts are scientifically testable
events. Truth, on the other hand, is the
search for meaning underneath either a fact or a story.
Let’s use a simple
example. If I drop a heavy object while
standing on the earth, it will fall to the ground. That is a fact. But the truth, underlying the fact, is that
the force of gravity acts upon the object to cause it to move towards the
centre of the earth, until a solid object (like the ground) stops it from
And that’s the challenge of
Valentine. Any stories you may hear
about him are myth. There is no factual,
provable evidence even for his existence.
But the underlying truth of this day that has grown up around him is
that love does matter, and the bonds of love between human beings are worth
celebrating and nurturing.
Today’s Gospel story also
has the feeling of myth about it, doesn’t it?
We are presented with a definitive ‘mountain-top experience’, and a
story of Jesus conferring with Moses and Elijah, prior to setting his face
towards Jerusalem and the cross. In the
meantime, a bit of comic relief is provided in the story by Peter - fussing
about whether to build shelters for these heavenly beings to meet in. I’m dubious, personally, about whether this
story is recorded fact, or glorious myth.
But, as with all such myths – and with all such stories, even when
absolutely true – the question we must ask is ‘why is this written down for us
to read? What is it that the writer of
this story wants us to learn?’.
There are many potential
learning points for us.
First, we might see that
Jesus didn’t appear on earth out of nothing.
He came as an inheritor and embodiment of all the Biblical history which
preceded him. He speaks his own wisdom,
but that wisdom is routed in the wisdom of the past, embodied in the teachings
of Moses, and the prophetic vision of Elijah. Jesus inherits that history, and
he fulfils it, through the sacrificial path he is about to follow, to the Cross
Secondly, we are reminded
that life often contains ‘mountain top’ experiences, but as I’ve preached
before on this passage, we must never forget that we come down from mountains.
Great spiritual events are brilliant for inspiring us and equipping us –
but the work of the Gospel takes place in the valleys and dark places of our
Thirdly, the comic relief
provided by Peter reminds us to keep focused on the spiritual, and not to get
too bogged down by the practical issues of life. That’s very easy for me to do – as I find myself obsessing about the latest building
project in the parish, or the practical requirements of parish
bureaucracy. If I’m not careful, I can
find myself spending all day doing practical things for Jesus, and failing to
just stop and bathe in the beauty and the power of Jesus himself. Is that true for you too? Do you also find yourself focusing on what
you need to do, rather than what you need to be?
Related to that thought
comes a fourth (and final) point. At the
conclusion of this story, God speaks from heaven saying ‘this is my Son…listen
to him’. Again, if I am too busy doing stuff for Jesus (like Peter), I
will fail to take the time to listen to what Jesus teaches me – through the pages
of Scripture, and through my heart by the Holy Spirit. We all need to make space to listen to God,
as well as to serve him.
Let me try to cunningly draw
the two themes of this homily together.
On the one hand we have Valentine – and icon for love, not just of the romantic
kind. We know little enough about him,
but we can be sure that it was his love for Jesus, above all, which drove him
to perform acts of love for those around him.
And, on the other hand - we have the
Mount of Transfiguration, on which the very God of Love commanded us to
listen to his Son. It is Love,
ultimately, which sits at the heart of both these stories. And it is love which will drive us down from
the Mountain of our worship today, and into the valleys of doubt, poverty,
faithlessness, loneliness, and all the other ills of the world. We will carry with us the Love which
Valentine knew, and which Jesus embodies – as we go on to love and serve the