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14 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. 

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 -14 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.

 

14 February - 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 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 14 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.

 

 

 

1 January - The Naming of Jesus

 

It is Matthew and Luke who tell the story of how the angel instructed that Mary’s baby was to be named Jesus - a common name meaning ‘saviour’.  The Church recalls the naming of Jesus on 1 January - eight days after 25 December (by the Jewish way of reckoning days).  For in Jewish tradition, the male babies were circumcised and named on their eighth day of life.

 

For early Christians, the name of Jesus held a special significance.  In Jewish tradition, names expressed aspects of personality. Jesus’ name permeated His ministry, and it does so today:  we are baptised in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38), we are justified through the name of Jesus (1 Cor 6:11); and God the Father has given Jesus a name above all others (Phil 2:9).  All Christian prayer is through ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’, and it is ‘at the name of Jesus’ that one day every knee shall bow.

 

 

The History of Christmas

The Bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus. In the third century it was suggested that Jesus was conceived at the Spring equinox, 25th March, popularising the belief that He was born nine months later on 25th December.  John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, encouraged Christians worldwide to make Christmas a holy day in about 400.

In the early Middle Ages, Christians celebrated a series of midwinter holy days.  Epiphany (which recalls the visit to the infant Jesus of the wise men bearing gifts) was the climax of 12 days of Christmas, beginning on 25th December.  The Emperor Charlemagne chose 25th December for his coronation in 800, and the prominence of Christmas Day rose.  In England, William the Conqueror also chose 25th December for his coronation in 1066, and the date became a fixture both for religious observance and feasting.

Cooking a boar was a common feature of mediaeval Christmas feasts, and singing carols accompanied it.  Writers of the time lament the fact that the true significance of Christmas was being lost because of partying.  They condemn the rise of ‘misrule’ – drunken dancing and promiscuity.  The day was a public holiday, and traditions of bringing evergreen foliage into the house and the exchange of gifts (usually on Epiphany) date from this time.

In the 17th century the rise of new Protestant denominations led to a rejection of many celebrations that were associated with Catholic Christianity.  Christmas was one of them.  After the execution of Charles I, England’s Puritan rulers made the celebration of Christmas illegal for 14 years.  The restoration of Charles II ended the ban, but religious leaders continued to discourage excess, especially in Scotland.  In Western Europe (but not worldwide) the day for exchanging gifts changed from Epiphany (6th January) to Christmas Day.

By the 1820s, there was a sense that the significance of Christmas was declining.  Charles Dickens was one of several writers who sought to restore it.  His novel A Christmas Carol was significant in reviving merriment during the festival.  He emphasised charity and family reunions, alongside religious observance.  Christmas trees, paper chains, cards and many well-known carols date from this time.  So did the tradition of Boxing Day, on 26th December, when tradesmen who had given reliable service during the year would collect ‘boxes’ of money or gifts from their customers.

In Europe Santa Claus is the figure associated with the bringing of gifts.  Santa Claus is a shortening of the name of Saint Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop in the fourth century in present-day Turkey.  He was particularly noted for his care for children and for his generosity to the poor.  By the Middle Ages his appearance, in red bishop’s robes and a mitre, was adored in the Netherlands and familiar across Europe.

Father Christmas dates from 17th century England, where he was a secular figure of good cheer (more associated with drunkenness than gifts).  The transformation of Santa Claus into today’s Father Christmas started in New York in the 1880s, where his red robes and white beard became potent advertising symbols.  In some countries (such as Latin America and Eastern Europe) the tradition attempts to combine the secular and religious elements by holding that Santa Claus makes children’s presents and then gives them to the baby Jesus to distribute.

 

6th December:          St Nicholas – a much-loved saint

One account of how Father Christmas began tells of a man named Nicholas who was born in the third century in the Greek village of Patara, on what is today the southern coast of Turkey.  His family were both devout and wealthy, and when his parents died in an epidemic, Nicholas decided to use his inheritance to help people.  He gave to the needy, the sick, the suffering.   He dedicated his whole life to God’s service and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.   As a bishop in later life, he joined other bishops and priests in prison under the emperor Diocletian’s fierce persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire.

 

Finally released, Nicholas was all the more determined to shed abroad the news of God’s love.   He did so by giving.  One story of his generosity explains why we hang Christmas stockings over our mantelpieces today.   There was a poor family with three daughters who needed dowries if they were to marry, and not be sold into slavery.   Nicholas heard of their plight and tossed three bags of gold into their home through an open window – thus saving the girls from a life of misery. 

 

The bags of gold landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry.   Hence the custom of children hanging out stockings – in the hope of attracting presents of their own from St Nicholas - on Christmas Eve.  That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols of St Nicholas.

 

The example of St Nicholas has never been forgotten - in bygone years boys in Germany and Poland would dress up as bishops on 6th December, and beg alms for the poor.  In the Netherlands and Belgium ‘St Nicholas’ would arrive on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds.   To this day, 6th December is still the main day for gift-giving and merry-making in much of Europe.   Many people feel that simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

 

 

 

Experience the Joy of Advent

 

‘Fear not: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’  Luke 2:10

 

Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.  The word ‘Advent’ is from the Latin word ‘adventus’ meaning ’coming’.  Sometimes called ‘Little Lent’, it’s a time to prepare our hearts for the future Second Coming, as well as the birth of Christ. 

 

We celebrate the season with advent calendars, candles and evergreen wreaths - symbolising Christ as Light of the world, bringing new and everlasting life.

 

Here are seven simple tips to help you experience and share the joy of Advent!

 

1. Connect with your inner child:  Think back to the time when you were a child, on the simple things that made you happy at Christmas.  Focus only on the good and feel the joy of Christmas come flooding back!

 

2. Keep it simple:  This year, go for gifts and cards that share the meaning of the season, shop early and stay within your budget.

 

3. Be people focused: Remember the story of Mary and Martha – keep meals simple and allow yourself time and space to focus on enjoying the company of your guests.

 

4. Make Room for Jesus: Take some time at the beginning of each day to read your Bible, meditate on Scripture and pray. Focus on giving thanks to God for His gift of Christ to the world and for all He has done for us.  

 

5. Me Time: God wants us to prosper in body, soul and spirit, so try to eat healthy, don’t overindulge, take time for long walks and enjoy the good and simple things in life!

 

6. Wear a smile and share the Joy!  Finally, being joyful is a choice, it’s not about your circumstances. So, decide to be thankful this season. Wear a smile, act and talk positively, do small things with great love, be on the lookout for opportunities to do good to people.  Give to the homeless, visit the sick, or take gifts to lonely neighbours.

 

If people ask you about your joy, don’t be afraid to share your faith. Simply explain to them that ‘Christ lives in my heart, and He can live in yours too.’

 

 

 

30 November    Andrew - first disciple of Jesus

Andrew, whose feast day ends the Christian year on 30th November, is probably best known to us as the patron saint of Scotland, though his only connection with the country is that some of his bones were reputedly transported in the 8th century to Fife and preserved at a church in a place now named St Andrews.

In fact, there are so many legends about him all over Europe and the Middle East that it’s safest to stick to what the Gospels tell us - though the strong tradition that he was martyred by crucifixion is probably true and is perpetuated in the ‘St Andrew’s Cross’, the ‘saltyre’ of Scotland.

The Gospels record that he was one of the first disciples of Jesus, and the very first to bring someone else to Christ - his own brother. Like many fervent Jews at the time Andrew and an unnamed companion had been drawn to the desert, to be taught by the charismatic prophet known to us as John the Baptist. Many thought that he was the long-promised Messiah, but John insisted that he was not. ‘I am the voice crying in the wilderness,’ he told the crowds. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! One comes after me who is greater than I am.’ So when one day John pointed out Jesus to Andrew and his friend and described him as the ‘Lamb of God’, the two young men assumed that the next stage of their spiritual search was about to unfold. So as Jesus made off, they followed him.

All the more strange, then (though, on reflection, very true to human nature) that when Jesus turned and asked them what they were ‘seeking’, all they could come up with was a lame enquiry about his current place of residence: ‘where are you staying?’ Or, perhaps, they were hinting that what they were seeking could not be dealt with in a brief conversation. If they could come to his lodgings, perhaps their burning questions might be answered.

The reply of Jesus was the most straight-forward invitation anyone can receive: ‘Come and see’. Come and see what I’m like, what I do, the sort of person I am. What an invitation! 

The results of their response were in this case life-changing - for themselves, and for many other people. Andrew brought his brother, Peter, to Jesus. The next day Jesus met Philip and called him to ‘follow‘. Philip then brought Nathaniel. The little apostolic band who would carry the message of Jesus to the whole world was being formed. They came, they saw, they were conquered! And right at the front of the column, as it were, was Andrew, the first disciple of Jesus.

 

 

 

1st November:        All Saints’ Day – the feast day of all the redeemed

All Saints, or All Hallows, is the feast of all the redeemed, known and unknown, who are now in heaven. When the English Reformation took place, the number of saints in the calendar was drastically reduced, with the result that All Saints’ Day stood out with a prominence that it had never had before.

This feast day first began in the East, perhaps as early as the 5th century, as commemorating ‘the martyrs of the whole world’.  A Northern English 9th century calendar named All Hallows as a principal feast, and such it has remained.  Down the centuries devotional writers have seen in it the fulfilment of Pentecost and indeed of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and resurrection.

The saints do not belong to any religious tradition, and their lives and witness to Christ can be appreciated by all Christians.  Richard Baxter, writing in the 17th century, wrote the following:

He wants not friends that hath thy love,

                And made converse and walk with thee,

And with thy saints here and above,

                With whom for ever I must be...

 

As for my friends, they are not lost;

                The several vessels of thy fleet,

Though parted now, by tempests tost,

                Shall safely in thy haven meet....

 

The heavenly hosts, world without end,

                Shall be my company above;

And thou, my best and surest Friend,

                Who shall divide me from thy love?*

1,255 ancient English churches were dedicated to All Saints - a number only surpassed by those dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

*(Maurice Frost (ed.), Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern (London: Clowes, 1962), no. 274, verses 1,3,6.

 

 

 

St Francis of Assisi - love for the Creation

St Francis (1181 - 1226) is surely one of the most attractive and best-loved of all the saints.  But he began by being anything but a saint.  Born the son of a wealthy cloth-merchant of Assisi, Francis’ youth was spent in fast-living, parties and on fast horses as a leader of the young society of the town. Then he went to the war between Assisi and Perugia, and was taken prisoner for a year.

By the time of his release, Francis had changed.  Perhaps his own suffering had awakened him to that of others.  In any case, he abandoned warfare and carousing, and began to help the poor and the lepers of his area.  Then one day a voice which seemed to come from the crucifix in the small, semi-derelict church of Damiano Assisi ‘Go and repair my house, which you see is falling down’.

This religious experience was a vital turning point in Francis’ life:  Jesus Christ became very real and immediate to him.  His first action was to begin repairing the church, having sold some of his father’s cloth to pay for materials.  His father was not amused, in fact he was furious - until Francis renounced his inheritance and even his clothes by his dramatic stripping off in the public square of the town.  The Bishop of Assisi provided him with simple garments, and Francis began his new life.

His inspiration was always religious, not social, and the object of his quest was always the Crucified Christ, not Lady Poverty for her own sake. Francis rebuilt San Samiano, and then travelled as a pilgrim. His compassion for the poor and lepers became famous. Soon disciples joined him, and they set up a communal life in simple wattle and daub huts. They went on occasional preaching tours. (Not until later did they become an Order whose theologians won fame in the Universities.)

In 1219 Francis visited the Holy Land, and his illusions about the Crusaders were shattered.  He went on to seek out the Sultan, and tried to convert him.  Back home, he found his Order was now 5,000 strong, and growing.  Francis stepped down as head, but continued to preach and was immensely popular. He died after a prolonged illness at the age of 45, and was canonised in 1228.

Francis’ close rapport with the animal creation was well known.  The story of his preaching to the birds has always been a favourite scene from his life.  He also tamed the wolf of Gubbio.  This affinity emphasises his consideration for, and sense of identity with, all elements of the physical universe, as seen in his Canticle of the Sun.  This makes him an apt patron of nature conservation.

The 20th century witnessed a widespread revival of interest in Francis.  Sadly, some films and books caricatured him as only a sentimental nature-lover or a hippie drop out from society.  This ignores the real sternness of his character, and his all-pervasive love of God and identification with Christ’s sufferings, which alone make sense of his life.  Two ancient, and many modern English churches are dedicated to him.

 

27th Sept         Vincent de Paul – patron of all charitable societies

Very few people stand out as being incredibly good, but Vincent de Paul was one of them.  His life touched thousands of people, who were helped and inspired by his love and kindness. 

Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 to a Gascon peasant family at Ranquine. Educated by the Franciscans and then at Toulouse University, he was ordained a priest very young, at only 19.  He became a court chaplain, and then tutor to the children of the Gondi family.  In 1617 he was made parish priest of Chatillon-les-Dombes. 

From here, Vincent de Paul ministered both to the rich and fashionable, and also to the poor and oppressed.  He helped prisoners in the galleys, and even convicts at Bordeaux.

In 1625 Vincent de Paul founded a congregation of priests who renounced all church preferment and instead devoted themselves to the faithful in smaller towns and villages.  In 1633 they were given the Paris priory church of Saint-Lazare, and that same year Vincent founded the Sisters of Charity, the first congregation of ‘unenclosed’ women, whose lives were entirely devoted to the poor and sick, and even providing some hospital care.  Rich women helped by raising funds for various projects, which were an immense success.

Even in his lifetime, Vincent became a legend.  Clergy and laity, rich and poor, outcasts and convicts all were warmed and enriched by his charisma and selfless devotion. Vincent was simply consumed by the love of God and of his neighbour. His good works seemed innumerable – ranging from helping war-victims in Lorraine, and sending missionaries to Poland, Ireland and Scotland, to advising Anne of Austria at Court during the regency.   

No wonder that after his death at nearly 80, the Pope named him as patron of all charitable societies.   Even today, the Vincent de Paul Society is working with the poor and oppressed.

 

 

16th Sept         St. Cornelius – the saint who had mercy on sinning Christians

Have you ever sinned since you became a Christian?  Really sinned – or in other words done something that was SO wrong and totally ‘out of line’ with being a Christian that you are still ashamed when you think of it now.  If so, and if you went on to ask God’s forgiveness for it, and have resolved never to do it again, then Cornelius is a good saint for you.  He fought for Christians who had failed miserably to be given a second chance.

The time was 251, and Cornelius had just become Bishop of Rome.  The Church at this time was struggling with what to do about Christians who had lapsed, and who now wanted to come back.   Novation, a powerful Roman priest, argued that the Church had no power to pardon and welcome back any Christian who had caved in under persecution, or who had committed adultery or murder or similar serious offences. 

Cornelius disagreed, and said that if a Christian truly repented and did the appropriate penance to prove it, then they should eventually be admitted back into the Church.  The argument might sound over-earnest to modern ears, but it reflects how seriously the early Christians took their commitment to follow Jesus in leading a holy life, and in being willing to die for Him.  In the end, that is exactly what Cornelius did – accepted death as the next persecution began, rather than deny Him.

 

 

1st September:         St. Drithelm - vision of the after-life

 

Drithelm is the saint for you if you have ever wondered what lies beyond death, or have had a near-death experience.    He was married and living in Cunningham (now Ayrshire, then Northumbria) in the 7th century when he fell ill and apparently died.  When he revived a few hours later he caused panic among the mourners, and was himself deeply shaken by the whole experience. 

 

Drithelm went to pray in the village church until daylight, and during those long hours reviewed the priorities of his life in the light of what he had seen while ‘dead’.  A celestial guide had shown him souls in hell, in purgatory, in paradise and heaven... suddenly the reality of God and of coming judgement and of what Christ had done in redeeming mankind became real to him, and his life on earth could never be the same again. 

 

Next day he divided his wealth into three:  giving one third to his wife, one third to his sons, and the remainder to the poor.  He became a monk and went to live at Melrose, where he spent his time in prayer and contemplation of Jesus.

 

Drithelm’s Vision of the after-life is remarkable in that it was the first example of this kind of literature from England.  It was SO early:  seventh century Anglo-Saxon England!  Drithelm has even been seen as a remote precursor of Dante.

 

On a lighter note, Drithelm can also be a saint for you if you didn’t get abroad this summer, but ventured to swim instead off one of our beaches: he used to stand in the cold waters of the Tweed for hours, reciting Psalms. 

 

 

The Rev Paul Hardingham considers the miracle of The Transfiguration, which is remembered by the Church on 6th August.

The Transfiguration – seeing Jesus as He is

 

The title of Bob Geldof’s autobiography, ‘Is That It?’, will resonate with us, when we’re looking for more in life. On a deeper level, we want to see and hear more clearly what God is doing in our circumstances. Jesus’ transfiguration, which we remember this month, helps us to consider this (Luke 9:28-36).

 

Jesus was transfigured alongside Moses and Elijah, ‘As He was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.’ (29). To understand our circumstances, firstly we need to see Jesus as God wants us to see Him. The disciples’ eyes were opened to see Jesus’ divinity. The presence of Moses and Elijah confirmed Him as God’s promised Messiah. By foreshadowing the resurrection, this event powerfully calls us to entrust our lives into Jesus’ hands to experience His presence and power.

 

Secondly, if we are to make sense of our circumstances, we need to hear what God says about His Son. A cloud covered them and ‘a voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him.” (35). God affirmed His love and call on Jesus as His beloved and chosen Son. Do we hear God speaking these same words to us? When we know that we too are loved and accepted by God, this transforms our understanding of our lives.

 

Whatever our circumstances, they can be transformed by what we see and hear. Open your eyes to see a transfigured world. Open your ears to hear a transfiguring voice. Open your heart to become a transfigured life.

 

‘Christians should see more clearly, because we have seen Jesus. We are people whose vision has been challenged and corrected, so that we can see the world as it properly is.’ (Justin Welby).