In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is Quinquegesima Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent, an opportunity for the faithful in Christ to prepare for the penitential fast that begins on Ash Wednesday. In particular, as we have read today in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, we are called to be mindful of charity. There is no real penance unless first we are disposed toward charity. There is no real forgiveness unless first we are open to divine grace. With charity in our hearts, we may be contrite for our misdeeds in a way that allows us to step away from our confessed sins, and to amend our lives going forward, with confidence in our redemption in Christ Jesus and with gentleness toward our fellow fallen neighbors. Without charity, we are not contrite for our misdeeds. Instead, we wallow in our grief for what we have done or failed to do. We beat up ourselves in a way that is so self-focused, so perversely narcissistic, that we do not even attempt to amend our lives going forward. “Woe is me” becomes the refrain of our lives. We cut off Christ for the strange allure of despair. With charity, Lent takes our hands and so leads us to Easter Sunday. Without charity, Lent is distorted in our imaginations into a kind of prologue to hell.
It is fitting that on this Quinquagesima Sunday we are also celebrating St. Valentine. Love is in the air at all times, but especially in the middle of February. In the Middle Ages it was believed that this was the time of the year when birds would form into lifelong pairs. As Chaucer wrote in 1381 in the “Parliament of Foules”: “For this was sent on Saint Valentine’s Day/When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.” Because Saint Valentine’s Feast occurred every year on the fourteenth of February, Christians in the chivalric past started to address their suitors and their beloveds as “my Valentine.” The practice owes as much to the actual life of St. Valentine as to the date we commemorate his martyrdom. Over the years he was described as a Priest in Rome or as the Bishop of Terni. Regardless, he was imprisoned as a missionary in the third century when Christianity remained outlawed in the Roman Empire. Held in house arrest a Judge Asterius visited him often, and he used the occasion to try to convince his jailer of the validity of Christ Jesus. Skeptical, Asterius put Valentinus to the test: He would accept that Christ Jesus is divine, if Valentinus could restore sight to his blind daughter. Praying to God, Valentinus placed his hands on the little girl’s eyes, and her sight was restored. Humbled, the jailer asked Valentinus what he and his family should do. Valentinus instructed him to remove all of the pagan idols from his home, to fast for three days, and then to undergo baptism into the Christian faith, which the jailer and his family proceeded to do. Asterius went on to release all of the Christians from his jail, and Valentinus continued to evangelize the Christian faith in the city of Rome. Arrested again, Valentinus is sent to the Roman Emperor, Claudius Gothicus, and tries to persuade him as he had the jailer. The Emperor orders him to be silent, and when Valentinus persists, he orders him to be executed outside of the Flaminian Gate. While in his cell awaiting his execution, Valentinus writes a letter to the little girl he had healed, and he signs it “from your Valentine.” Notwithstanding the imminence of his own death, Valentinus had the charity of mind and heart then to pen what we may call the first Valentine’s Day card. He set aside himself to focus on what he could give to a little girl who could do nothing in return for him. This is gentle, kind, compassionate, but it is also bold and courageous. For with charity in our souls death has no claim over us. Valentinus knew that very soon he would be clubbed and stoned to death by a vicious mob. He knew that they would finish him off by cutting off his head. Nevertheless, because of charity, he would not allow for his own fears, no matter how palpable they must have been at the time, to interfere with his selfless giving. He would not wallow, but neither would he be hardened. In the end, he would be the same gentle man he had been when he healed that girl of her blindness. His death would happen, but so long as he lived it would not be able to mark him, to rob him of the grace God had bestowed on him at baptism, and that is what St. Paul means when he writes that charity alone “never faileth.”
Everything else will pass, but if we have charity we shall stay committed with Christ and with one another in faith for the duration. Like the two birds seated side-by-side often featured in medieval artistic depictions of St. Valentine’s Day, if only we abide in charity we shall remain steadfast in those godly traits that will keep our marriage with Christ healthy and strong for the long haul. St. Paul describes these traits in his Epistle today: We shall suffer long, but be kind. We shall not envy, puff up ourselves, behave unseemly, be easily provoked, think evil thoughts, nor rejoice in iniquity. We shall bear all things, believe what is true, hope for the future, and endure the present trials. Often, we think of charity in the context of selfless action. We say that the gift is in the giving especially when there is nothing to be gained in return. We give some of our money or our time to a good cause. Now, surely a charitable person will tend to act in a selfless manner, but the essence of charity is not any one particular act, no matter how good, but rather an overall disposition towards grace. We are charitable when we open ourselves to God and to the best of our abilities conform ourselves to His will for us. The good news is that He helps us along the way with the Holy Ghost. He picks us up when we stumble. He carries us when we are too weakened by sin to go forward at all. If we persist with Him, even when we have lost everything else, or feel spiritually adrift and alone, then we have charity.
In modern times, we think of Valentine’s Day in the context of romantic love. We call to mind the infatuation of youth or the rekindled romance in a committed marriage. This is good as it is but only a part of the picture. For though love may be seeded in sweetness, and first watered with romance, it is really meant to grow into a life that is sturdy, strong, dependable, faithful, and even when necessary courageous. What starts as romance should mature into charity. Yes, true romance can and should be rekindled from time to time, but the only good foundation is charity. As we may see in the example of Valentinus writing his letter to that little girl he had healed, if we are bold and steadfast in our fidelity to God and to the faithful in Christ Jesus, then our hearts will be predisposed toward selfless kindness and compassion no matter how trying the moment may be. Remain committed, stay loyal, be brave, walk with Christ openly even in the face of persecution, and I suspect over time you will find in your heart a greater propensity for kindness, patience, compassion, even romance.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.