Special days in February
14th February: Valentine’s Day
There are two confusing things about this day of romance and anonymous love-cards strewn with lace, cupids and ribbon: firstly, there seems to have been two different Valentines in the 4th century - one a priest martyred on the Flaminian Way, under the emperor Claudius, the other a bishop of Terni martyred at Rome. And neither seems to have had any clear connection with lovers or courting couples. The former is described below (see The Very First Valentine Card.)
So why has Valentine become the patron saint of romantic love? By Chaucer’s time the link was assumed to be because on these saints’ day -14th February - the birds are supposed to pair. Or perhaps the custom of seeking a partner on St Valentine’s Day is a surviving scrap of the old Roman Lupercalia festival, which took place in the middle of February.
One of the Roman gods honoured during this Festival was Pan, the god of nature. Another was Juno, the goddess of women and marriage. During the Lupercalia it was a popular custom for young men to draw the name of a young unmarried woman from a name-box. The two would then be partners or ‘sweethearts’ during the time of the celebrations. Even modern Valentine decorations bear an ancient symbol of love - Roman cupids with their bows and love-arrows.
There are no churches in England dedicated to Valentine, but since 1835 his relics have been claimed by the Carmelite church in Dublin.
The Very First Valentine Card: A Legend
The Roman Emperor Claudius II needed soldiers. He suspected that marriage made men want to stay at home with their wives, instead of fighting wars, so he outlawed marriage.
A kind-hearted young priest named Valentine felt sorry for all the couples who wanted to marry, but who couldn’t. So secretly he married as many couples as he could - until the Emperor found out and condemned him to death. While he was in prison awaiting execution, Valentine showed love and compassion to everyone around him, including his jailer. The jailer had a young daughter who was blind, but through Valentine’s prayers, she was healed. Just before his death in Rome on 14th February, he wrote her a farewell message signed ‘From your Valentine.’
So, the very first Valentine card was not between lovers, but between a priest about to die, and a little girl, healed through his prayers.
16th February: Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Day
Ever wonder why we eat pancakes just before Lent? The tradition dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when Christians spent Lent in repentance and severe fasting.
So on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the church bell would summon them to confession, where they would be ‘shriven’, or absolved from their sins, which gives us Shrove Tuesday. At home, they would then eat up their last eggs and fat, and making a pancake was the easiest way to do this. For the next 47 days, they pretty well starved themselves.
Pancakes feature in cookery books as far back as 1439, and today’s pancake races are in remembrance of a panicked woman back in 1445 in Olney, Buckinghamshire. She was making pancakes when she heard the shriving bell calling her to confession. Afraid she’d be late, she ran to the church in a panic, still in her apron, and still holding the pan.
Flipping pancakes is also centuries old. A poem from Pasquil’s Palin in 1619 runs: “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.”
Some people have noted that the ingredients of pancakes can be used to highlight four significant things about this time of year: eggs stand for creation, flour is the staff of life, while salt keeps things wholesome, and milk stands for purity.
Shrove Tuesday is always 47 days before Easter Sunday and falls between 3rd February and 9th March.
17th February: Ash Wednesday
My memory of the
Passover in Jerusalem
by David Winter
Ash Wednesday introduces the Christian preparation for Easter, which normally coincides with Passover, the major Jewish celebration of the year. It’s near Easter because Jesus was crucified at Passover, having just shared this very meal with His disciples.
Passover celebrates and recalls the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Led by Moses they crossed the Red Sea and 40 days later entered the ‘Promised Land.’ They shared the Passover meal at their last night in Egypt and have kept it all for nearly the past three thousand years or so that have followed.
Many years ago, when I was in Jerusalem to produce a radio programme, I was invited to join a Jewish family for their Passover meal. It was a great occasion, very like our Christmas, a family event with deep religious significance for those who seek it.
At the meal in Jerusalem, we ate modest lentils and unleavened bread – Matzos as we now call it. We also drank plenty of wine but not from the cup at the end of the table. That is ‘Elijah’s cup’, only to be drunk from when the prophet comes to announce the arrival of the Messiah. At the last supper Jesus instructed His disciples to drink from that cup after supper, which may have shocked them at the time. The Messiah had come!
Have you done something which haunts you?
A reflection at the start of Lent
Do you ever worry that your past failings mean that God will not accept you now? Some of us have done many things which we regret, things that have caused us, or others, great pain.
We’ve given our children short shrift, we’ve betrayed our marriage partners, we’ve been dishonest at work, we’ve been ruthlessly greedy and ambitious, no matter what the cost to anyone else. And now the memory of the wrong we’ve done lingers, and makes us ashamed. Our past failings make us very reluctant to turn to God. Why should He forgive the damage we have done?
If you think this way, then you have a big surprise waiting for you: God isn’t like that. You haven’t yet encountered His GRACE. God knows all about you, and most of all He knows you need His help. Jesus said that He came into the world to reach sinners, to help anyone who turns to Him in true repentance to find forgiveness, and a new start.
You can’t do anything to turn yourself into a good person. But you don’t have to. All that God asks of you is that you turn to Jesus in prayer, and say you are sorry, and ask Him to forgive you, and to put His Spirit within you. Then you find His GRACE – which means His loving-kindness, beginning in YOUR life. Just try it.
Today let God begin to set you free from the past!