(I wrote this post after reading an excellent question on Facebook from a dear brother in Christ concerning the celebration of of ‘holidays’ like St. Patrick’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day, and even Christmas and Easter. It was especially focused on the question of why ‘non-catholics’ would celebrate essentially ‘catholic’ holidays. He asked for thoughts and these were my thoughts – hastily assembled, Forgive me.)
Forgive me, brothers and sisters in Christ. I have some thoughts on this question posed, and perhaps something to offer from the perspective of someone who’s journey in Christ led to the Orthodox Church. I realize many here do not share that journey, or maybe don’t know very much about what Orthodox Christianity is or believes. I also am reluctant to respond on Facebook in matters like this that mean so much to people and can easily stir up passion (not always positively!). I do long for the day when we could actually talk in person again about things like this, rather than over such limited medium which lends itself to misunderstanding so easily.
Anyway, my .02. It seems there are two questions here. One is the commercial and civic aspect of the so called ‘holidays’ mentioned. Really most religious meaning has been removed from them, to the point that it is really more of a shared cultural celebration than religious. I mean, St. Valentine was a martyr for Christ, but we celebrate now with chocolates and candy hearts. St. Patrick lived an extremely sober and strict life (that is, after his ‘prodigal son’ like moment of returning to Christ after having lived in a very worldly fashion. Yet we celebrate his holiday with drinking and partying.
As someone who does honor saints (its not just catholics!), it is quite a strange thing to see St. Nicholas turned into Santa Claus. However this does not make me think I should not honor the life of St. Nicholas. Forgive me for my forwardness, but, I would ask – even for Christians who do not keep the memory of saints – what is wrong with learning and reading about the lives of fellow Christians whose lives absolutely shone with the light of Christ in their day? How can this not be anything but helpful in our Christian walk?
A serious look at Church history would tell us that no matter what our opinion on the reformation, or the need thereof, or abuses in the catholic church that led to it, or anything like that, we nonetheless do have to recognize that our heritage was the same for many centuries. And our shared heritage includes some of these people that some traditions call ‘saints’. I would venture to say that Martin Luther, the very ‘father’ of the reformation and ‘sola scriptura’ did not wish to abandon that heritage that he shared. He rather wished to correct it, get it back on track. Not even he set out to start his own church.
So to the point of the particular ‘saints’ referred to. As I mentioned, St. Valentine was willing to die as a witness to Christ. He suffered greatly, was tortured, but refused to renounce Christ. Certainly we have something to gain from remembering him. Nicholas and Patrick were great witnesses to Christ, Nicholas was known for his great love and charity. Both were known for their steadfast and unwavering (even when it caused them great scorn and rejection) preaching of the Gospel – and upholding the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, and is the only way to salvation.
Also, even for non-catholics or non-orthodox, one must ask – should we not learn about the Christians who lived and died for the faith, especially in the early centuries? Patrick, Nicholas, and Valentine all lived between the 3rd and 5th centuries. This was during the time when the canon of the New Testament was accepted. It was already in use in the churches, but they were under persecution, it took councils – the first of which Nicholas attended! – with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to agree upon what letters and writings were trustworthy as the inspired word of God and which were in error. We owe our own heritage to the faithful lives of these men and women who came before us. Its a strange thing to think that there was no ‘bible’ (New Testament especially) as we know it and have the great privilege and blessing of having in our homes and churches for several centuries after Christ. One can ask – who was Paul writing to, if not a Church? A Church that was a living community, and a living community that included many of these ‘saints’ whose lives are remembered as examples and encouragements to us now.
This was also a living community, guided by the Holy Spirit that was establishing things like celebrating the Resurrection of Christ , Holy Pascha (still called this in the Orthodox Church, but was later known as Easter), Christ as the fulfillment and completer of Passover, and the other “Holy Days” of the Church that show the fulfillment in Christ of all the continuing Covenant of God with His people. These ‘Feast Days’ were practiced in the Church in the very earliest centuries – even before an official canon of the New Testament was accepted. Now, certainly many additions (sometimes strange or even flat out wrong!) crept in within different cultures, and time periods – combating superstition and too much syncretism is always the work the people of God must do, but it does not mean we throw everything out, but rather, seek the true meaning, which ultimately should lead us closer to Christ, and build one another up!
So, is it okay to show extra kindness and affection to those closest to us, to give tokens of this at Valentine’s Day? I don’t see any harm in it. I do see harm in buying into the commercialism or the pressure to ‘prove love’ by material things – this is not a Christian way to live. Is it okay to get together with one another for a meal, and, if you’re of Irish heritage, to celebrate that? I don’t see any harm. Is it okay to get drunk? Of course not, we know we are not to do that as Christians.
I can speak only for my experience in the Orthodox Church, but there is a keeping of Feast Days, which includes services and prayers that seems to help keep things focused on Christ, which I find helpful in dealing with these ‘holidays’. For example, Christmas morning there is a service of celebration. So before any presents, any get-togethers, there is a celebration of the Birth of Christ. There are seasons of fasting, like Lent (also practiced by Christians in the early centuries), which keeps one from overindulging, and considering the life and great sacrifice of Christ for our sins. There are seasons and times, which have been remembered and lived for two thousand years (perfectly always? without error always? of course not – that is the human side of the work of God and His people – I am certainly not perfect, so I am sometimes actually encouraged by the fact that the history of the Church is not perfect either, yet God still remains faithful to us!). And it is this stream, this heritage we get to be a part of, working it out in our time, just like all of those who went before us did in their time. Lord willing, keeping Christ at the very center of all of it.