Third Sunday before Lent (The Feast of St Valentine)

12 feb 2017


Preacher: Canon Mandy Ford, Chancellor

Readings: Song of Songs 2:10-13 and 8:6-7; Colossians 3:12-17


Most Sundays, this building is sweetened by the presence of loving couples, striving to live out their lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Most Sundays they are more or less visible, but all know they are welcome here.

Today we mark the feast of St Valentine, and welcome those who have been married or entered a civil partnership recently, or who are planning to do so in the months ahead.

We do this to mark the feast of St Valentine, just as on many days in the cathedral we commemorate the saints and martyrs of the early church, remembering with thanksgiving their witness to their faith.

Which leaves us, as the liturgical calendar often does, with a slight problem, since there is very little to link the early saint with the idea of romantic love.

Worse, than that, we are not even commemorating one person, but possibly two or even three. The first St. Valentine was a priest and physician in Rome martyred in 270, the second a bishop martyred a few years later, and the third one of a group of African martyrs, and no one knows who the Pope had in mind when he authorized a feast on 14 February in 496.

We really don’t know how the feast became associated with romantic love, or whether it was established in order to Christianise a pagan fertility festival, but there are a number of legends which try to make the connection.

One suggests that Valentine conducted secret marriages for soldiers, who were forbidden to marry; another says that the imprisoned Valentine fell in love with the jailor’s daughter and sent her secret messages of love.

By the middle ages the connection was well established, and linked to another medieval legend that 14 February was the day on which the birds chose their mates –  Chaucer mentions it in his poem, the Parliament of Fowls.

By 1602, Valentine’s Day gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Ophelia is given the lines:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

And John Donne used the image of the birds marrying on St Valentine’s Day as the theme for a wedding poem for Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, in 1632,

HAIL Bishop Valentine, whose day this is;
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners;
Thou marriest every year

By the 18th Century cards and poems were often exchanged between couples, the Victorians are responsible for the roses, the chocolates and the postal delivery, and our friends at Hallmark cards in the USA, for commercialising the whole thing - they’ve been printing valentine cards since 1913.

It would be easy to dismiss the lot, as at best poetic fancy and at the worst, commercialised, pagan, nonsense.

But, all the romantic gestures: the poems, the cards, the roses, are outward expressions of an understanding of love which is in fact, deeply Christian.

The whole idea of Romantic love: the idea that love should be a free and loving mutual partnership between two people, which is committed, intended to be life long and faithful, is essentially Christian. It derives from our understanding of who God is, and who we are.

As Christians, we are bound up in the love story of a God who creates the world and all that is in it out of sheer love, who longs for his creatures to love him but gives them the freedom to chose, and who finally embraces creation in the most extraordinary act of love, by emptying himself to be among his creatures, becoming so vulnerable that he allows himself to be tortured and killed, returning to show us what love looks like when it is all forgiving, and opening for us the possibility that one day we will be united with him in complete all embracing love, joy and peace.

All God asks, is that we also love him and each other, with that same creative, faithful, sacrificial, forgiving, passion.

Our frail and fallen nature and the free will which he so generously bestowed upon us, make that task a challenging one which is only ever partially realised in this world. But those who love and have been loved know, that there are moments when our love for another can give us just a glimpse of God’s love for us.

We experience that love in our families and in our friendships, but today we celebrate that love experienced in marriages and partnerships which have that special quality of intentional committed and faithful love, expressed in mutual self-giving.

Romantic love is physical love: love which is felt in the heart and the guts, and expressed in the body too.
It is a reminder that our bodies were not only created, but shared by the creator in the incarnation.

So today we celebrate love that has that sacramental quality of showing something outwardly, which is inwardly experienced as a gift of grace in which we know God more deeply.

Today, those of you who have come to be part of this service in celebration of your romantic, loving, partnerships, are an icon of God’s love among us. In your lives you show those around you how God works in the world, and I pray for you and with you, that your love may have those qualities, celebrated in our scripture readings today.