I find myself intrigued by the ironic coincidence that this Sunday, Valentine's Day falls on the last Sunday of the Season of The Epiphany - the Sunday before the Season of Lent.
It is yet another observance of yet another saint of the church which has been taken over by our culture. Today, more roses and chocolates, lavish dinners and sexy lingerie will be bought as gifts, and more romantic proposals of marriage will be made today than on any other day of the year.
How serendipitous that, this year, this all happens on the last Sunday before the beginning of the austere Season of Lent when sacrifice and penitence will be the dominant themes of our lives of faith. In three short days, we go from excess to austerity.
It’s such an ironic coincidence!
St. Valentine, of course, is the patron of love, lovers, and friendship. Do you know his story? He is believed to have been a priest in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. He was well loved by the Romans who flocked to the temple where he was assigned to listen to his words.
During that time, Emperor Claudius was defending his empire against its enemies. As the wars raged on, fewer and fewer men wished to be enlisted into the army. This became a decided problem for the Emperor. You can’t fight a proper war without lots of soldiers.
Believing that the problem was that men did not want to leave their wives and families or lovers to fight in a war, Claudius passed a new law prohibiting marriages.
Well, however flawed, it does have its own logic. Valentine did not support the new law and continued performing marriage ceremonies secretly. One night, he was caught, arrested and thrown into prison.
The Emperor, however, thought that Valentine was well spoken and wise and took a liking to him. Indeed, Valentine’s jailer, seeing that the prisoner was a man of learning, brought his daughter Julia to Valentine for lessons.
Valentine read her stories, taught her arithmetic and told her about God. It was believed that through the prayers of Valentine, Julia’s sight was restored.
On the event of his death, Valentine wrote a last note to Julia to thank her for her friendship and urged her to stay close to God. The note was signed, “From your Valentine.” (This is where you say, “Awww.”)
Some say that this was the start of the custom of exchanging love messages on Valentine’s Day. (This is where you say, “I didn’t know that!”)
Unfortunately, the story, as many stories of the Saints of the Church, doesn’t have a happy ending. The Emperor encouraged the young priest to renounce his faith and become a loyal Roman.
Valentine refused and was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs, and afterwards, beheaded, which took place on February 14, about the year 270.
Here’s the thing about love – the story the modern Valentines Cards and Madison Avenue sentiments don’t express: it changes you. Transforms you. Makes you bold and brave. Makes you willing to lay down your life and leave behind all the comforts of home you once enjoyed and, perhaps, took for granted.
Makes you take risks you never thought you’d take. Risks that make your parents (and, to be honest, most sane people) gasp in anxiety and horror.
Tell the truth – those of you who are married: Would you really encourage your son or your daughter to get married at the young age you were married? Or had as little money as you had when you first started out?
Or live in the teeny-tiny place that was your first apartment furnished with whatever rag-tag furniture you could find and the heating pipes that clanged noisily in the middle of the night which was, to your eyes anyway, a palace?
“Love is blind,” the old saying goes. Some say that as the height of romantic compliment. Others say it like it’s an ominous, bad thing. Indeed, it can be both.
One thing is certain – love is the most dangerous force on earth because love changes you. Perhaps that’s why we’re always trying to control it. The truth is love transforms you. Indeed, it can transfigure you.
This Sunday is known as Transfiguration Sunday on the church calendar. I don’t think that’s a a coincidence, either. We heard first this morning about the transfiguration of Moses after he met God on Mt. Sinai.
“When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. . . . When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face.” (Exodus 34:29-35).
In Luke’s gospel we learn that Jesus took Peter, John and James with him to the mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
I can hear some of you saying, “Oh, pshaw! That only happens to Very Holy People when they are deep in prayer.” Not so, my friends. Not so. We become transformed whenever we look into the face of Love. Our appearance changes. Indeed, our lives change.
Our youngest daughter, Mia, just announced her engagement. I knew it was going to happen. Anyone who saw her together with the man she loves would not – could not – be surprised.
It’s about to happen to her older sister, too. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Julie is in love. Big Love. I’ve never seen either of these two of our daughters look so happy.
Love does that to you. It can bring you joy. It can also break your heart. Don’t get me wrong. I’m absolutely over the moon with joy for our children.
I’m already looking forward with great anticipation to gaining even more beautiful grandchildren we’ll have from these unions. (I can hear both my daughters groaning, “Oh, Mooooooommmmm”).
But you know, if I’m completely honest, there’s a touch of something that’s not quite sadness, but probably something closer to being described as “bittersweet”. Oh, they’ve been out of the house and on their own for years now.
This is different. Their lives are going to be changed – radically different. Transformed. Transfigured. Just as yours and mine were when we decided to say ‘yes’ to love. ‘Yes’ to a lifelong, faithful commitment and all the sacrifice that takes to make that commitment work.
Love can be the ultimate ironic coincidence.
This is the absolute worst of times to be making a life long commitment. The global economy is still struggling to recover. I fear the worst is not yet upon us. Seventeen – 17 – houses in Chatham went into foreclosure so far this year.
The unemployment figures are improving but people are still underemployed or living in a state of constant anxiety about the possibility of being downsized.
War continues to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan and Congo and continues to threaten in Iran and parts of the Middle East, while Haiti valiantly persists in the recovery from the devastation of the earthquake last month.
Love is blind. Love does not see despair. Love only has eyes for hope. For possibility. For dreams and the attainment of impossible dreams.
Isn’t that part of the allure of watching the Winter Olympics? We’re watching the reality of someone living into the achievement of what looks for all the world like an impossible dream.
Perhaps the worst of times is the best of times for lovers.
Perhaps what we need, now more than ever, is more lovers – or all ages. I’ll spare you my temptation to break out into a warbling rendition of that 60s hit, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” But you know, there’s some real truth hidden among that sappy sentiment.
We need young lovers to remind us that sacrifice is worth it. Indeed, sacrifice doesn’t make much sense if there is no love.
In fact, Lent makes no sense, no sense whatsoever, without the sacrificial love of God in Christ which brings us to the glory of Easter Day.
It is the ultimate in ironic coincidence.
Because of the gift of Jesus, as St. Paul reminds us, the veil is lifted from our eyes and we, too, can see the glory of God in the sacrifice He made for us.
Jesus is God’s Valentine’s message to us about the sweetness and the goodness, the hope and the joy of God’s sacrificial and salvific love for us.
If we’re willing to make the sacrifice and take the risk, because of Jesus – who, by our baptism in him, lives in you and lives in me – we can catch a glimpse of the face of God in each other’s eyes.
The love of God in Jesus makes lovers of us all.
I’m reminded of an old song that’s become one of my favorites on Valentine’s Day, but you know, it captures the essence of the sacrifice and joy of the love that St. Valentine exhibited.
He doesn’t have a religious hymn in his honor, not in our hymnal, anyway. Perhaps this one will do.
Indeed, I think congregations like St. Paul’s should consider using it as their theme song. I think that, especially after the Vestry retreat this past weekend, this is especially true.
I think this little song captures what life in Christian community is like. Perhaps you remember it or you’ve heard it once or twice. If you do, sing it with me. It goes like this.
You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little.That’s for you, St. Valentine, and all the lovers who follow Jesus into the sacrifices of Lent and joys of Easter love.
That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love.
You’ve got to laugh a little, cry a little, until the clouds roll by a little.
That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love.
As long as there’s the two of us, we’ve got the world and all it’s charms.
And when the world is through with us, we’ve got each other’s arms.
You’ve got to win a little, lose a little, and always have the blues a little.
That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love.
Alright, then. I’ve got chocolates to buy before Ms. Conroy comes home. Somebody give me an Amen so I can get out of here.
Thank you. And, Amen.