For those of you who have sweethearts I hope that it isn’t me who is reminding you that today is Valentine’s Day! If so, thank goodness that at least some shops are open and you have the opportunity to save yourselves…
St Valentine is of course the patron Saint of lovers. The Roman martyrology records the death of two martyrs of the same name on this day. One of them was a priest and the other a bishop, both died in the third century. The existence of neither is certain because so little is known of either them.
The priest Valentine is usually associated with lovers. The story goes that the Roman Emperor Claudius had forbidden marriages being conducted on the basis that Roman soldiers fought harder if they were unmarried, presumably because of the fewer emotional bonds which might distract them from fighting to the death. Valentine however continued marrying couples, even after being caught and imprisoned once. The second time there was no forgiveness or mercy for him and he was beaten, stoned and beheaded.
The more secular association is usually traced back to the writings of Chaucer and his poem Parliament of Fowls. Chaucer speaks of birds pairing on ‘seynt valntynes day’ hence the coming together of two lovers. By now I think that birds pair a little earlier, certainly based on the behaviour of the robins and blackbirds at home! Whatever the origins, the forces of consumerism make sure that we don’t forget Valentine’s Day.
These days I think that the word ‘love’ is used too lightly, even in a secular context. ‘I love Mars bars’, ‘lots of love’, even ‘I love you’! What is the breadth and depth of these expressions? Too often I fear that it is a mere superficial expression with little, if any, real thought or reflection on what ‘love’ actually is and means.
In the Authorized Version of the Holy Bible we often find the word ‘charity’ where modern versions use the word ‘love’. While charity has come to mean something different today, this puts us on notice that we should be careful about how we use the word ‘love’ and what it does mean.
The Hebrew Bible tells us that the starting point of our relationships is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6.5). Love is therefore the foundation of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. For Christians, Jesus builds on this foundation with the commandment “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22.39).
Love has a central place in Freemasonry of course, brotherly love being the first grand principle of on which it is founded. I chose this as the theme of the first Provincial Church Service I was responsible for back in 2019. Perhaps too obvious, but by the same token I felt that it was something important to celebrate, to give thanks for, and to remind all present that this affects our life day by day.
There are always ample examples of brotherly love to illustrate the fact that these are more than mere words in the ritual. These last twelve months have provided so many more examples of expressions of brotherly love to bretheren and their families, but also to our fellow human beings who are not members of our fraternity.
In my sermon at the Church Service I said that true brotherly love could not be confined or restricted to our fellow bretheren and their families. That would be an artificial brotherly love and not a genuine expression of the same. If we are to be truly changed by the principles of Freemasonry, to be made wholly ‘better men’, then we do not limit our good, but rather share it with all whom we encounter. It is a challenge, but that is the transformative power of true love, the ultimate demonstration of which is not only to love our brothers and sisters, but even to love our enemies. That is a real challenge for each everyone of us, perhaps the greatest challenge we could face – to love those who hate us.
On Wednesday the Church begins the Season of Lent. A time when people traditionally give something up, for religious reasons or otherwise. I think that perhaps ‘dry January’ is taking over from Lent, partly because the beginning of Lent changes from year to year and partly because Lent lasts longer than a month! The observance of Lent and the purpose of Lent is also often misunderstood. The intention is not to be miserable for the sake of being miserable and to punish oneself by abstaining from things that we enjoy like alcohol, coffee or chocolate!
Lent is intended as a preparation for Christians to celebrate the absolute love of God shown to man in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The biggest challenge however is trying to understand why such love demands that Jesus suffers death on the Cross on Good Friday.
Love, true love, is always a complicated matter: in human terms and in relation to the Divine. We can’t speak of it lightly or take it for granted. It is central to our existence in terms of our relationship with others, and our relationship with God. That is the nature of humanity and that is the nature of the Divine. We can ponder and hypothesise as much as we want, but love is best experienced – as we show love to those we encounter day by day, and as, we pray, we receive love from those we encounter day by day.
This hymn, written by Sir Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877), is a version of the well-known Twenty Third Psalm which speaks of the love which God has for us throughout our earthly journey. The words obviously made a lasting impression on the author, for the words of the third verse were the last he spoke as he died:
The King of love my Shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine for ever.
Where streams of living water flow
my ransomed soul he leadeth;
and where the verdant pastures grow,
with food celestial feedeth.
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
but yet in love he sought me;
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
thy rod and staff my comfort still,
thy cross before to guide me.
Thou spread’st a table in my sight
thy unction, grace bestoweth;
and O what transport of delight
from thy pure chalice floweth!
And so through all the length of days
thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house for ever!
I offer this prayer:
O God, fountain of love, pour thy love into our souls, that we may love those whom thou lovest with the love thou givest us, and think and speak of them tenderly, meekly, lovingly; and so loving our bretheren and sisters for thy sake, may grow in thy love, and dwelling in love may dwell in thee. Amen.