Sunday, February 12, 2017

St Valentine and marriage

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

In our gospel reading today, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord lays out his teaching on marriage. Today is also, as it happens, the Sunday closest to St Valentine's Day. So I thought I would take advantage of the coincidence to talk a little about St Valentine – a man who was martyred in ancient Rome for his dedication to Christian marriage.

How could such a situation arise? Well the emperor of St Valentine's time, Claudius II, had a serious problem – he was finding it difficult to find men to fill the ranks of his armies. A large cause of this was the fact that it was not only the law but an ancient tradition that a recently married man was excused from military service. This was a fairly usual custom in ancient times – we read, for example, in the Old Testament, how a man who has just married must not be sent out to war for a year in order for him to be able to spend time with his new bride. But that new marriages were taking place at such a rate that it was causing problems with finding enough soldiers to keep the army strong enough to protect the empire suggests that something fishy was going on. It seems to me not unlikely that men must have been gaming the system in order to get out of military service – whether because they were cowards or they would have felt such a life inconvenient to their ambitions – soldiers don't make much money, after all - it is hard to say. So we can imagine that perhaps some men were entering into shame marriages – paying girls to marry them with no intention that they should live together as husband as wife. Worse, perhaps some who were already married were divorcing their wives so they could marry anew and avoid being called up. The ancient Romans were always very quick to end one marriage and enter another, especially when they thought there was some advantage in doing so.

Now, banning marriages taking place was something that not even the emperor could do. Marriage is part of the natural order of things. But he could ban those who officiated at them from doing so. There were a lot fewer of them than couples wishing to marry, making them easier to control. For most couples wishing to marry for genuine reasons this was not quite the disaster it seems. Ancient Rome had several different types of arrangements which would have been considered a marriage. The least formal type is what we would probably refer to as cohabitation which was called 'usus' in Latin – marriage by use. The couple simply lived together and after a time were regarded by those around them as married. This had fallen out of use by this time, but we can imagine, given no other choice, couples in love choosing to resurrect the custom; and because of its informal nature would not have attracted a free-pass from military service. No doubt those who wished to could have married more formally later if they wished to do so, once the emperor's ban had been lifted. And if they did not wish to do so, the 'marriage' would have been ended just as informally as it had begun.

But Christians, of course, were not your average citizens. They had a very particular idea of marriage – one that was very different to the culture around them. They certainly weren't about to start living with each other – doing what we in our modern age would refer to as cohabitation. For them the emperor's ban amounted to an absolute ban of marriage.

Absolute, of course, unless they could find some priest who was willing to defy the emperor’s unjust law. And St Valentine was just such a priest. We can imagine him, day after day, meeting with young couples in the cave and tunnels that made up the catacombs under the city of Rome, and by the flickering light of little oil lamps officiating at the ceremonies that would make them man and wife not only in the eyes of men but in the sight of God. It was a terrible risk, of course; for the emperor would not be pleased if he found out. More, Claudius II hated Christians and a great persecution took place under his reign. So a priest from one of the temple cults who defied his ban might expect imprisonment and perhaps a beating as well. But a Christian priest could expect that punishment only to be a prelude to death.

And so it was with St Valentine. He was eventually arrested and thrown in prison. When he was brought before the emperor it is hard to say what angered him most – the priest's disobedience or that he was a Christian. He had the holy man beaten with clubs; and then beheaded. A cruel death to be sure. But we can be equally sure that St Valentine thought it a small price to pay for doing his duty as a priest to the couples he helped and to God. For the powers of this earth may kill the body, but they can not touch the soul. And St Valentine would have known that it was that he risked, his very soul, if he failed in his duty as a priest of God.

St Valentine died a martyr's death for the Christian ideal of marriage. The kind of marriage that we hear our Lord speak of in our gospel reading today and elsewhere in the gospels. It was the ideal of marriage that the Church Christ founded sought to bring everywhere the good news was preached, knowing it to be God's plan for how men and women were to live. Many things in the world today threaten that ideal – perhaps because it is as much a threat to the culture of today as it was in the time of St Valentine. And yet he thought it something worth dying for. We no less should think it something worth fighting for. And so I end today with a prayer for marriage – that people will come understand its beauty, how it is part of God's plan for bringing men and women to be with him in heaven, and joyfully do all they can to strengthen and promote the ideal of Christian marriage in the society in which we live today and always. Amen.  

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