Monday, 13 February 2012

Polycarp beats Valentines any day

Some time ago in conversation with some schoolchildren, I suggested that Christians in 21st century Britain (The West?) ought to be reticent in celebrating Valentines. The challenging questions that followed have forced me to carefully assess my views on that issue and here in this short article, I want to articulate something of my justifications why, I would I urge caution on celebrating Valentines.

At the outset I want to say I'm not anti-romance. Rather my concern in raising this issue is with a view to asking Christians to consider carefully what we assimilate from our culture and, to also encourage us to transform our thinking in terms of how we order our holidays and seasons.

As many of you know, Valentines is meant to be a day when those who are courting, those who are betrothed, those who are married, express their affection for one another in visible acts of devotion. In many cases, this translates to the man getting flowers for his beloved as well as the couple enjoying an intimate meal. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these things per se.

However, I wonder if we Christians sometimes simply join in with what the culture commends, without considering how a Christian celebrating such a festival would differ. Now please hear me carefully – I am not saying that celebrating a festival which the surrounding culture celebrates is necessarily wrong. In fact I would argue that many of the festivals and celebrations which our culture celebrates find their proper place and true meaning in a Christian setting. What I am saying though, is that we need to consider everything we do in light of Scripture and ask ourselves how a Christian celebrating Valentines day (or for that matter Mothers day, Christmas, Easter etc) would differ from how the world celebrates. I think this is a basic application of verses such as 2 Corinthians 10:5 where Paul writes that 'we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.' It also follows from passages such as Colossians 1:16-18 where we are told that 'all things were created by Him and for Him... so that in everything he might have the supremacy.'

I wonder if one way to ensure that the days, weeks and months of the year display Christ's supremacy is for us to consider patterning our lives around the much maligned notion of a Church year. No doubt this sounds for some like an archaic and possibly dodgy idea but I want to offer two reasons why I think following the church year can be of immense benefit to us.

First, the Church year follows the story of the main events in Jesus' life: his birth at Christmas, his death on Good Friday, his resurrection on Easter Day, his Ascension forty days later, and his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. Other lesser known seasons such as Advent and Lent are also linked to the great stories of salvation: Advent is meant to encourage us to consider Christ's final second coming whilst Lent is meant to help us reflect on the great sacrifice that Christ paid on the cross. The benefit of following these seasons as the year unfolds is that they provide Christians/the Church with a very clear framework with which to teach and live the gospel. Thus as we consider the bible readings that are appropriate for the season and as we mediate on how these readings fit into God's big story of salvation we will become more immersed in the gospel and become more the people God calls us to be.

Second, by following a church calendar the wonderful story of salvation will be easily transmitted from one generation to the next. This will therefore help Christian families and the Church to pass on the gospel message from one generation to the next (Psalm 78:4-7). Think for example how over the years children get to learn many of the Christmas traditions (Santa, presents under the Christmas tree, carols, Advent calendar, mince pies) simply by having them repeated them year on year. In a similar way, our knowledge of the life, death resurrection and ascension of Jesus will become ingrained the more we’re immersed in these stories regularly. Furthermore, following a church calendar will also help ministers to go deeper in their preaching, since over time, congregations will begin to see easily, the major connections between individual passages and the wider themes in God’s Big Story. Ministers will therefore not always have to spend inordinate amounts of time on the biblical background but can simply allude to it and thus focus on the passage in hand.

All this to say – instead of organizing the year into the patterns dictated by the world (valentines, mother's day, the summer holidays etc) shouldn't it be better to organize our calendar to reflect Christian priorities? Wouldn’t it be great if our children marked off the different seasons by recalling certain events in the life of Christ and were familiar with the Scriptures that described them? Wouldn’t be wonderful if over time, rather than simply celebrate what the world celebrates (in the way they celebrates it) we Christians celebrated those things that really matter in accord to the Scriptures? One example of this was kindly provided to me by a good friend who, while we were considering a good reason for our families to get together for some food, fun and fellowship, suggested that we meet on or around the 23rd February. Her reason? Well this is the date which historically the Church has remembered a great Christian martyr: Polycarp. What a fabulous idea and for me, remembering this great hero of the faith rather than partaking in soppy sentimentalism, will be the highlight of my February.

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