Dei providentia et hominum confusione [In the providence of God and the confusion of humankind], this year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same day. There is no obvious connection for the simultaneity, except perhaps the dichotomy that we are mortal, but love is eternal.
If one searches the origin and history of Valentine’s Day, one finds clouds and legends mixed with a bit of history. According to one account, the day [Feb 15] has its origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, what we today would call a fertility rite. In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I and his church people, no doubt upset by the whole notion of a fertility rite, sought to replace it by declaring the previous day [Feb 14] a holy day in honor of a saint, a man called Valentine. No one really knows who Valentine was, but the legend is that he was a priest who performed marriage ceremonies for soldiers. For this he was executed in 269 CE. Why? Because the Emperor Claudius II realized that men were refusing to join his army and go to war because they wanted to stay home with their wives and family, an easy choice, no doubt. Valentine flouted the emperor, and paid the ultimate price.
No doubt the Christians of the 5th c relished the legend of Valentine, just as the Romans relished the legend of Lupercalia, each surrounding historical fact with legendary narrative. After a stretch of time, legend and fact became so integrated that a person could no longer differentiate between the two, and few cared to be bothered with such clarification. We have made Valentine’s Day into what we want it to be, and we celebrate accordingly.
The same is true for the Nativity story of the Christmas season just past. We have made it what we want it to be. The gospels of Mark and John have no stories about the birth of Jesus, and the two gospels who do have stories, Matthew and Luke, do not tell the same story. Luke tells of a decree going out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed, the registration for the tax requiring that everyone go to their hometown. Not only is there no record of such a tax, but the logistics of everyone going to their hometown would be impossible. Matthew, on the other hand, tells of three magi [wise men? kings?] who came from the east, following a star that ultimately rested over Bethlehem, birthplace of a new king. They visited Herod along the way, inquiring of him where they might find this newly born king, and upon hearing their question, Herod became fearful and determined that he must kill the babe. Angels, however, warn both the magi and Mary that they must flee to Egypt for the time being, where they will be safe, and they do.
None of this ever happened.
Matthew and Luke were trying to teach about Jesus and they fabricated elements to emphasize the points they wanted to make. Matthew and Luke attached narratives to a historical event- the birth of Jesus- and over time the separate stories of Luke and Matthew morphed into one story, and the mythology, if we choose to call it that, today outshines the fact. In our current collective awareness, the story of Jesus is not about a revolutionary who was crucified because he challenged the greedy rich and powerful, which he was. It is instead about a babe in a manger, surrounded by animals, visited by three wise men and shepherds, and fleeing the wrath of Herod. The added narrative has become more popular than the original truth. The myth has become the thing, at least partially replacing the reality behind it.
People want to believe narrative, fabricated or not. The licentious debauchers of Rome wanted to believe in the rites of fertility. The medieval Christians wanted to believe the story of St Valentine, as we do today. And the whole of Christendom wants to believe the Nativity stories. And there is nothing wrong with that desire provided that we not allow the myth to hide the foundational fact, which, of course, is precisely what we tend to do.
Mythology, however, is not limited to religious narrative. It invades the political realm as well. White “Christian” nationalists today are consumed by a myth that they themselves have fabricated, a myth they want to believe. Of course, there is a United States of America, with a history rooted in fact, the truth of which can be ascertained by investigation. But there is also a narrative that has been grafted to that history, a narrative not founded in reality, and that narrative for some has become more powerful than the truth. “The founding fathers intended the US to be a white Christian nation. We have a Manifest Destiny to rule the world. This god-given right authorized us to kill native Americans and take the land. Slavery of Africans was not as bad as it seems. People of color are inherently inferior. Anyone can be a success in America if they try hard enough.” The lies gain power when incorporated in a mythology, and as an eventual consequence, the hurtful myth lives on in the minds of its believers, even as the facts are lost.
Not all myth is hurtful. In fact, we can and do learn much from mythology, embodying basic truths as it can. Valentine Day’s reminder to love is a wonderful motif, and the Nativity stories contain many good lessons we need to learn. But when we make a story into what we want it to be, and that is a hurtful lie, then our task is straightforward, and that is to speak the word of truth and expose the lie for what it is, especially when we are confronted with an integrated and hateful combination of politics and Christianity.
Carl Krieg, Ph.D. received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, The Void and the Vision and The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.