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.
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 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 (more than 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 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 is a similarly perplexing tale for anyone searching for objective fact. For a start, there are no witnesses to the events with the Devil in the desert, except Jesus himself who –perplexingly - never wrote anything down. We can only guess, therefore, that we have received the story of Jesus’ temptation by him telling his disciples about it, after the event – and we all know how good Jesus was at telling parables.
But facts are not the point. It is the underlying truth that we are invited to discover. The truth of Jesus’ encounter with Satan is that God chooses to establish a Kingdom which is based on some very clear principles.
First, Jesus rejects the invitation to turn stones into bread. He rejects the idea of miraculously feeding the starving poor – and I assume he did so for a very good reason. The truth of this story is quite simply this: if God was to feed the starving poor of the world, we would learn nothing, as a species, of the value of sharing.
Secondly, Jesus rejects Satan’s invitation to throw himself off the temple, and be miraculously transported to the ground by Angels. The truth here is that Jesus did not come to wow the crowds with miracles and spectacle. He did not want people to follow him because he could do magic tricks. Jesus is not David Blaine! He wanted people to follow him because they chose to follow a hard road, a narrow way: the only way that leads to truthful living, and everlasting life.
Thirdly, Jesus rejects Satan’s invitation receive all the Kingdoms of the world, if he will only bow down and worship the Devil. But the truth is that Jesus refuses that invitation. His Kingdom will not be based on the Devil’s principles of greed, selfishness, exploitation and warfare. God’s Kingdom will be based on decidedly different principles – the principles of sharing, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, charity and love.
And here, finally, Valentine and Jesus come together. It is love which we celebrate on Valentine’s day – human love, ‘eros’ love as the Greeks would say. But the truth of Jesus is that such love is only a pale shadow of the love that God has for us. It is only a pale shadow of the love we are called to have for all humanity. God calls us outwards from the love between two people, and into a divine love which embraces the whole of creation. Amen.