Each year, sometimes even before the Christmas decorations have been packed away, we start to see flashes of bright red and pink showing up in store windows. Images of hearts, kisses and cupids begin to appear on t.v., along with a plethora of jewelry commercials, all reminding us that St. Valentine’s Day is approaching.
When I ask the parents at my parish if they have any plans for celebrating St. Valentine’s Day, I usually get quite a few eye rolls and comments about how the greeting card industry conspires around this holiday to guilt people into buying more stuff, all “in the name of love.” While I’m not denying that there are certainly many prompts from the media urging us to spend, I also believe that St. Valentine’s Day does, in fact, offer us a great opportunity to show the people around us affection, and even to think a little more deeply about what is meant by this word: love.
Tradition holds that the original St. Valentine was a priest who lived in Rome, who was imprisoned under Emperor Claudius II for performing the sacraments. While he was in jail, Valentine befriended the daughter of the jailer. As legend has it, the entire family of the jailer ended up converting to Christianity, further angering the emperor. Before his execution on February 14, St. Valentine sent a small note to the young girl, signing it “Remember me, from your Valentine.”
Valentine was a fairly popular name in the early days of the church, and there are records of other priests named Valentine who were also put to death for their faith, during the reign of Emperor Claudius. So, the love displayed by these first Valentines was not romantic love, that came in later, but a deep and abiding love for Christ, a love they followed to their deaths. This is the same type of love referred to in scripture and displayed by Jesus himself, the self-emptying, sacrificial love of God to which we are each called.
The first letter to the Corinthians explains love more fully when it says:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
5 it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
6 it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
If we read each of these verses slowly, one at a time, it's easy to come to one conclusion - it’s hard to be truly loving. In fact, the love described here pretty much goes against most of our natural inclinations. Trying to live this type of radical, other-centered love can be overwhelming and intimidating, if not just impossible. That’s where St. Valentine’s Day celebrations can come to our help.
Before February 14 arrives, take a few moments to think about the people around you, especially those whom you love. What is one, small thing you can do or say to show them your love? Dr. Gary Chapman’s well-known book The Five Love Languages can be a great guide in pointing out the best way to turn love into some visible form, and not necessarily just through buying something. His five languages of Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch can help us focus on others, considering what they need, and how to serve them best. After spending a bit of time thinking about our relationships with others, we may also realize that before we can offer a gesture of love, we first need to offer an apology and repair some hurt that was done. His sequel, The Five Languages of Apology, written with Dr. Jennifer Thomas, can also provide guidance, detailing five different ways to apologize and reconnect through Expressing Regret, Accepting Responsibility, Making Restitution, Genuinely Repenting or Requesting Forgiveness. Using these two books together reminds us how closely love and reconciliation are connected.
If we take the many visible cues of love we see all around us right now, all those hearts and angels, as a gentle invitation to love instead of a reason to be cynical or selfish, we can begin to form the habit of seeing love as an opportunity to be other-focused, to consider the needs of others over ourselves, to get a little closer to the high standard of love described in scripture. Holding St. Valentine’s Day in this perspective prepares us for something else, as well. Just a week after February 14, the holy season of Lent begins. During those 40 days, we will walk with Jesus, Love made visible, to the cross, where he will offer his life in the supreme act of self-giving sacrifice. By already contemplating love and reconciliation on St. Valentine’s Day, we can be primed for this journey, and perhaps able to enter into it more deeply. If possible this year, don’t brush off St. Valentine’s Day as just another money grab, but enter into it with a spirit of docility, responding to the soft call of the Good Shepherd to contemplate Love, and prepare ourselves to walk with Him.
The first episode of the “Mysteries of the Rosary” series was released today on Wild Goose TV. Made in collaboration with filmmaking company Paradisus Dei and produced by 4PM Media, the first episode introduces the series and reminds us of the power of the rosary. With a running time of about 35 minutes, the host, Mark Harfiel, shares stories of how the rosary has been an effective tool in interceding in the lives of many.
The series alternates in location between the Holy Land and the United States. The scenes from the Holy Land feature beautiful images of sacred sites, such as the Church of the Annunciation, and also give us a glimpse into what the home of the Holy Family may have looked like. In the United States, current church ministers, both clergy and lay people, are interviewed and give their insight into how the rosary features in their everyday lives.
Besides the beautiful imagery, the episodes are underwritten with inspiring music, leading the viewer into a contemplative attitude. Theological reflection is woven into the script, including quotes from Pope St. John Paul II and Sr. Lucia of Fatima.
Each episode includes a couple of options for viewing and study. Viewers can watch the 7-part series on their own, in a small group or in a parish group. An individual study guide to the episodes, a small group guide and a parish group guide are all provided as well (in pdf files), to facilitate learning, conversation and conversion in different formats. If your parish is not hosting the series, consider putting together a small group to watch and pray on your own. Even better, offer to run the program at your parish and invite everyone to come.
The first episode was released today, January 30, and the other six episodes will be released on Ash Wednesday, February 22. This first series will focus on the Sorrowful Mysteries, making this a very appropriate devotion for Lent. Future series on the other mysteries of the rosary are in the works.
Wild Goose TV is a streaming platform offering videos produced by The Ministry of the Wild Goose, who also produced video series such as “Metanoia” and documentaries like “St. Francis of Assisi: Sign of Contradiction.” The Wild Goose, an old Celtic image for the Holy Spirit, is the inspiration behind Wild Goose TV. Videos can be watched for free with an account; donations are gratefully accepted.
If you cast your mind back to your high school days, you can most likely remember reading Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet “at least once in English class. In this play, Juliet, bemoaning her separation from Romeo due to family fighting, cries:
“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)
Since it is Romeo’s last name that is keeping them apart, she insists that his name is essentially meaningless, and that if he could only change it to anything else then all their problems would be solved. After all, if we called a rose a pumpernickel, for example, or a heffalump, wouldn’t it still remain the same thing, i.e. just as beautiful, just as fragrant, just the same? In other words, can’t the name of a thing be divorced from the thing itself?
It is true that changing the name of a rose to something else would not also change the properties of the object itself, in this case a rose, but the name change would certainly add a layer of confusion and, ultimately, untruth. A name is more than just a placeholder, something that can be changed on a whim. A name is also a signifier, conveying meaning. It tells the truth, so to speak, about the thing it is labeling.
In fact, the word “rose” comes from the Latin word “rosa,” which refers to the woody, perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa. This tells us that roses are part of a group of species that are closely related through common descent. So, we know that roses produce flowers, not fruits, and we should be careful about trying to eat them. We also know that, given normal conditions, they will grow and bloom for many years. A name tells us truths about what it labels.
Why is this important?
Because the month of January is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. Just like the name “rose” tells us truths about what a rose is and does, so, too, Jesus’ name tells us about who he is and what he does.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” which puts together two words: “Ya” for “Yahweh” and “yasha,” meaning “rescue, save or deliver.” The name of Jesus, then, tells us not only who he is (Yahweh the Lord) but also his mission, what he does (saves us by atoning for our sins and delivers us back into relationship with God). His person and his mission are both revealed in his name.
And Jesus’ essence and mission continue in the Church today. Saint John Paul II wrote that “When the Church celebrates the great sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, Christ bestows on each and every member of the Church not only himself but himself in the mystery of redemption and justification.” He gives the gift of “his person and of his action” in the Eucharist to each of us, every time we receive him.
If Jesus is the Word of God, the one Word for all time, and we, Jesus’ followers, are called to be little words of his, then perhaps we should spend some time thinking about our own names, especially the name given at our baptism. How do our names reveal who we are created to be and how we will participate in Jesus' mission? Praying the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus is another good way to reflect on the name of Jesus during this month.
Give us, O Lord, as much a lasting awe as a lasting love of your Holy Name, for you, who live and are King for ever and ever, never fail to govern those whom you have solidly established in your love. Amen.
This ornament is called "Polar Bear Santa," and is a fitting tribute to the saint we honor today - St. Ambrose. St. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397. He was a greatly respected theologian and preacher, and is especially remembered for his fight against Arianism, which held that Jesus Christ did not exist eternally with God the Father but was begotten by God at a later time. Therefore, Arianism does not believe in the revelation of the Trinity, 3 persons of equal stature, but holds a derivative view of the Son. Jesus was "like" God the Father, but not "con-substantive" with the Father.
St. Ambrose is also remembered for his preaching against paganism, especially any pagan cults sponsored by the state. Although not as great a threat to Christianity in the 4th century as earlier, enough pagan sects remained active to cause concern to St. Ambrose and others of the time.
St. Ambrose featured prominently in the conversion of another great saint, St. Augustine of Hippo. One could imagine the small bear above could be St. Augustine, lifted and carried along by the older, wiser St. Ambrose. Just as the Polar Bear is carrying a tree, a symbol of St. Ambrose's preaching against paganism, which sought to worship Nature as a god, instead of created by God, we see those same evergreen boughs being carried by the young bear, but changed into the shape of a wreath, an old symbol of victory and immortality. And so, this ornament reminds us that none of us lift ourselves us to glory. Rather, we are always supported by the shoulders, i.e., the work, the prayers, the sacrifices, of those who came before us. It is their lives, their prayers and their inspiration, that bring us closer to God.
In the case of these two saints, this support is obvious. Not only was St. Ambrose declared a Doctor of the Church, but so, too, was St. Augustine. In fact, without St. Ambrose, we may never have had a St. Augustine. It is a good idea, then, to think about whose shoulders we seek, whose approval we cherish. Who do we look to for inspiration? For guidance? For wisdom? And does this guidance lift us up, closer to victory, or merely distract us from it?
The sentiment in the scroll, extolling nature, fits in nicely with the Scottish theme for this year. Under his warm fur coat, Santa is wearing a robe that closely resembles one of the more well-known Scottish kilts. Much like the tradition of the Greek fisherman sweaters, the Scottish kilts are each identified with particular clans, most of them from the Highlands.
Kilts originally appeared in the 16th century and were originally ankle length. However, they were eventually shortened to knee length for practicality and ease of use.
But it is the staff in Santa's hand that points especially to Scotland. The animal on the top of the staff is not a reindeer, but the mystical Scottish stag. Sir Walter Scott, himself a Scot, penned these words about the stag in his poem "Hunter's Song:"
It was a stag, a stag of ten,
The stag, like the Scottish thistle, appears in family crests and shields as a symbol of strength, loyalty, freedom and to a certain extent, wildness, in the inability to be tamed or broken. As anyone who has ever taken a trip to Scotland knows, it only takes a few moments of wandering through the wild Scottish landscape to deeply understand this sentiment.
This Father Christmas reminds us of the beauty, gifts, strength and wildness of nature herself, and the One who made her. Although we have done our best to domesticate God, this ornament reminds us that it can't be done. As C.S. Lewis once commented about his character, the lion Aslan, "He's not a TAME lion," so too, this Father Christmas tells us that our God is not to be subdued and bridled. He's as wild and fierce as the Scottish stag.
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