Happy Valentine’s Day…or is it Lupercalia?
In our on going effort to understand how God speaks to us and we share God with others I thought it might serve if we take a look at Valentine’s Day.
Technically St. Valentine’s Day, the only reason it is even on the calendar is veneration of Valentine. Valentine was, so the story goes, a priest and physician (or possibly the bishop of Terni, Italy) who was executed by Claudius II in 270 on February 14. The alleged crime was marrying couples in defiance of the Emperor’s orders, because newly married men were exempt from military service. According to legend, St. Valentine signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter, whom he had befriended and healed from blindness. Somehow this got him to be the patron saint of lovers, epileptics, and bee keepers. The Roman Catholic Church removed him from the General Calendar of saint’s days in 1969 due to lack of historical evidence. Something that no one seems to have told Hallmark.
But the Romans were already celebrating February 14 (technically 13-15) as Lupercalia and had been at least as far back as the 6th century BC, maybe further. According to tradition this day was set aside to honor the wolf, Lupercal, who had nursed Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, after the attempted infanticide there uncle the King had ordered.
Lupercalia rituals took place in a few places: Lupercal cave, on Palatine Hill and within the Roman open-air, public meeting place called the Comitium. The festival began at Lupercal cave with the sacrifice of one or more male goat, a representation of sexuality, and a dog. Following the sacrifice there was a feast after which men ran naked around slapping women, who bared their skin, with strips of the goat’s hide. Then unmarried men would draw the names of unmarried women from a jar and they would pair off and be expected to stay together for a year, choosing either to marry or resubmit to the jar.
Overtime the ritual grew more chaste, but still had a charged bloody and sexual atmosphere.
Many historians believe that the inclusion of St. Valentine’s Day in the middle of Lupercalia was an attempt to baptize and tame the ancient practice, its self a Romanized version of an even more ancient fertility ritual.
This baptism of pagan beliefs was fairly common. Syncretism, the blending of different belief systems, is not uncommon in any point in history. The post-apostolic church seemed to practice it a lot, easing polytheists into monotheism by the veneration of Mary and the Saints.
Our question is this: how much is too much? To communicate we must speak the language of our audience. From a good Protestant standpoint we might say that the incorporation of pagan holidays into the story of Jesus is compromise (knowing that when we do we condemn ourselves for Easter and Christmas among other things). We acknowledge, however, that accommodations must be made. The majority of the early church did not insist on conversion to Judaism to accept Christ. From the very beginning translations were made for local languages, with the New Testament itself being the Greek version of a story that was most likely originally told in Aramaic. We do not insist on rivers for baptism, but accept tubs and pools and in other denominations even poured or sprinkled water. We use grape juice for communion!
We make allowances for ourselves and our times when communicating the Gospel. In an ever more pluralistic society, one much like the early church’s environment, we must work to stretch ourselves, to eliminate our own cultural additions, and effectively communicate and demonstrate the truth of the Gospel. At the same time, we must be careful to not eliminate the power of the Gospel, its conviction and its grace, for the sake of more followers.