Dear Salem Family,
Every once in a while, the calendar can sort of give you a wink and a nudge and say, “See what I did there?” 2018 is one of those years, in that the very somber church holiday of Ash Wednesday happens to fall on the somewhat less somber cultural holiday of Valentine’s Day—or, more properly, St. Valentine’s Day–celebrated with chocolate, flowers, endless ads for mail-order PJs and oversized teddy bears, and more. It seems like it should have all the makings of an Alanis Morissette song…but then maybe it’s not so ironic, after all.
First, let’s look at some history. While the history and details surrounding St. Valentine are—to put it charitably—a little murky, there are a few things that are generally agreed upon. His street name was Valentinus, and he was probably born around the year 226 in the city of Terni, in what is now Italy. He was a very early Christian, becoming a priest, and then eventually Bishop of Terni, Amelia, and Narnia. (No, not that Narnia.) At some point thereafter, he was arrested for his faith, and while in the custody of a Roman judge named Asterius he performed miracles and spoke persuasively enough to convert the judge and his family.
Freed from custody, Valentinus soon got in trouble again by secretly marrying couples so that the man—now married—would be ineligible for military service. At a time when the Roman army was pressed for soldiers, this was a major inconvenience—even traitorous. He was arrested again, and this time ended up in the custody of Emperor Claudius II. (No, not that Claudius.) There, he proved to be charming enough that Claudius II took a shine to him…until Valentinus offered to baptize Claudius II if the Emperor would give up his pagan ways and embrace Christianity.
Claudius II counter-offered by having Valentinus beaten to death and beheaded.
In any case, that’s the story as it’s been handed down over the years. Scholars believe the part about sneaking off and marrying couples clandestinely may have been added, or at least exaggerated, during the Middle Ages by the likes of Chaucer, which resulted in St. Valentine becoming strongly associated with the idea of love. As with so many things lost in the mists of time, the origin is no longer as important as the result— St. Valentine, and his feast day, are tightly tied to the idea of romantic love.
Which, when you think of it, may make it a perfect fit for Ash Wednesday. After all, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, where we are called to ponder the wondrous grace and love that is reflected in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus came to offer up his life, to die in a most brutal way, on just the chance that some of us would embrace him as our savior and be restored to relationship with God. Jesus died so that you and I, and everyone else, might live…and love doesn’t get much deeper than that, does it?
And Lent, of course, is also the time when we are called to reflect upon our own sins and failings—on those times when we have not shown love to God or to our fellow human beings, in one way or another—and so it seems appropriate, too, that the day we begin that reflection is also a day when someone who did show that unfailing love is honored.
So this year, as you are making your Valentine’s Day plans, I encourage you to remember Ash Wednesday, as well—because both days are grounded in love. We will be gathering at Wilmot UMC with all of our brothers and sisters from the Circuit to observe this day on February 14, at 7 p.m. Set aside the chocolates and flowers for a short while and join us as we mark the beginning of Lent in worship, prayer, and reflection.
And looking ahead, off to the distant days of spring, we see the calendar winking at us one more time, as we realize that Easter falls on April 1 this year…but that’s another story.
See you in church!
(Earlier A Word from the Pastor messages may be found in Newsletters.)