Sunday, February 14, 2021

Valentine and the Mountain

 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 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 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 moving.

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 and Resurrection.

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 world.

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 Lord!  Amen.

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