Monday, February 07, 2005

Faith/Works 2-12-05
By Jeff Gill

Many of the events in the Christian calendar are “baptized” dates. While no one wonders whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was born, the exact date has never been known, since none of the Biblical accounts mention a day.
In the Roman empire, where Christianity spread first and fastest, a number of dates in the Roman calendar were “baptized,” converted from their cultic purposes along the Tiber to mark major points in the stories from the Gospels, such as late December’s Saturnalia turned into Christmas, or Spring rites of the Vestal Virgins into Lent. Many Celtic dates and names in western Europe were “baptized” the same way, such as Eostre, a Spring fertility rite, taken to mark the date finally agreed upon to mark the Resurrection at the Synod of Whitby.
While few Roman pagans have shown up on the public scene to reclaim holidays for Saturn, Juno, or Mercury, pop culture has done a strange reworking on the reworked festival that is Valentine’s Day.
Originally an ancient, mysterious cultic observance called “Lupercalia,” where the devotees of Bacchus, god of wine and drunken frenzy, would tear an animal apart with their bare hands and then crowd around to be whipped with bloody strips of hide, the early Roman Christians said, and I quote, “Whoa nelly!”
This “bacchanal” (there’s that Bacchus/Dionysus again) was oddly popular, largely because being left with a red mark from one of the flails was believed by women to promote fertility for wives who could not bear children, the summum bonum of ancient life.
So the church leaders did a very clever “baptism” of even the lurid Lupercalia in mid-February, and tied it to the commemoration of an early Christian martyr, who witnessed to the power of love between young believers held captive before their own deaths in the arena, and to God’s power shown through them all. You still had drama, tragedy, hope, and faith all twined together, but with the blood left as a symbolic indicator in emblems of red.
Less to clean up, too.
So for practical and faithful reasons, the feast of Saint Valentinus of Rome washed away the excesses of Lupercalia in love letters and symbols of the heart marking February 14, two weeks before year’s end. (Roman years began in March, but that’s another column.)
Today, St. Valentine is the one who’s co-opted: it’s Valentine’s Day, or V-Day, with even hearts and cupids steadily supplanted by lace, chocolate, and fertility rites of a sort that might be recognized by a Roman matron in training for a Lupercalia street festival.
Renewing that baptism of old, some churches are working to reclaim the day for Saint V and his affirmation of romantic love as a manifestation of divine love, holding special dinners for couples, holding marriage retreats or Marriage Enrichment programs around Feb. 14. Hebron Christian Church even combines a celebration of couples’ and families’ love for each other with their love for a camp program that has built strong relationships over many years, and make their Valentine’s dinner a fundraiser for Camp Christian.
It could be sharing how many years you’ve been married around a sanctuary on a Sunday morning this time of year, or sharing in small groups or in testimony time what has strengthened your marriage recently, but let’s not let Valentine’s Day go back to the wolves!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio. Tell him your story of a loving faith community or renewed history at

No comments:

Post a Comment