The cross is a symbol of the fact and the method of execution of Yushua ben Joseph. The Cross is also a marvelous symbol of the grounded and heavenly vertical of truth and love, combined with the horizontal that symbolizes the universality and equality of their reach. What does it mean if our personal vertical or our personal horizontal is tilted or out of square? And how does this relate to the symbol of courtly, romantic, and familial love represented by St. Valentinus?
Today is Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about him and talk about love.
The first thing to know about Valentinus, Saint of the Catholic Church, is that there are at least three of them. Our Valentine’s Day Valentinus was one of two men named Valentinus who were both Christians and both martyred on February 14th, but in different years, by emperor Claudius II in the 3rd century CE. There was a third St. Valentinus who was martyred in Africa, but he doesn’t come into our story much.
The Church has allowed all three to keep their sainthoods, but in 1969 removed him (or them, or the name of the three) from the General Roman Calendar because of the lack of reliable information about him (or them).
The two that died within a year of each other, in Rome and just outside of Rome, were both reputed to be kind and loving and merciful and protective of Christians. The emperor decreed that the young men of Rome would not be allowed to marry, because single men made better soldiers than men with wives and families. One or the other of these Roman Valentinuses disobeyed the Emperor and secretly performed marriages of many young couples, and got caught, and was beheaded. So he sacrificed himself for the cause of young love. That’s rather romantic, isn’t it?
It is suspected that, like with Christmas and Easter, the Church overlaid Christian events on top of pagan ones. As so it seems to be with Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s feast day was overlaid onto Lupercalia, which took place in mid-February and was a fertility festival. And you know what happens at fertility festivals; harvest festivals too.
There is a movie, The Ice Storm, in which there is 1970s-style dramatized experimentation with adultery. The respectable Connecticut men put their car keys into a bowl and the ladies reach in and take one, and go home or go upstairs with the guy who keys she has. I bring this up because that ritualized promiscuity was an important part of the Lupercalia, which Valentine’s Day was trying to dilute.
I don’t know, of course, what happened to you with memorizing poetry and famous speeches in middle school, but at my school we memorized and recited, for instance, The Gettysburg Address, and also Marc Antony’s valedictory for Shakespeare’s slain Julius Caesar. Antony speaks to the crowd thusly:
After a couple hundred years of being in uneasy harness with Valentine’s Day, the Lupercalia was phased out as being non-Christian.
Valentine’s Day observances persisted from the Roman Empire to day. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first in England to popularize it as a day of romantic (and procreative) celebration in his 1375 poem “Parliament of Foules”, where he writes:
Over the years, St. Valentine has become the patron saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers.
Valentine’s Day as we know it really cranked up when, in the early years of the previous century, the Hallmark company began printing millions of Valentine’s Day cards and everyone could afford them. And now we have flowers and chocolate and baby animals, especially chicks and rabbits. Fecundity!
Now then, I’m sure you are wondering, what does all this have to do with the Christian symbol of the Cross?
There is not a direct connection with St. Valentine. He lived and died a hundred years before the adoption of our so-called Latin Cross. The connection is only that they are both symbols of love. Christians adore the Cross because it speaks to them of the Son of God loving us and sacrificing his life for us, and continuing to protect us.
Now let us appreciate how great a symbol the cross is. Is there a more powerful and simple symbol of religion, or one’s native land, or your team’s logo? The only comparable symbols I can think of are the Star of David, the Union Jack of Great Britain, and the National Socialists of Germany’s misappropriation of the Hindu swastika. Anti-Nazis called it “the crooked cross.”
But there is a more spiritually symbolic and philosophical way of looking at the Cross, and that is that it is an unmatched symbol of the unity of the vertical and the horizontal. The selfish love, and unselfish love.
The vertical represents the connection between being grounded in the Earth, in our spiritus mundi, and the infinity of the heavens to which we aspire to rise toward. It represents the self, and its self-centeredness, connection, and for some a path, and for all of us unity.
It is Eros and Agape. It is a representation of the human condition of inward and outward, love of self and love of everyone.
C.S. Lewis wrote Christianity-infused science fiction, and in his Out of the Silent Planet, our Earthling voyager uses the universal symbol of One, and Oneness to being to decipher the language of the beings he is encountering on Venus.
Kurt Vonnegut, who described himself as a “fabulist” was a Humanist and a free-thinker and an atheist, and an occasional Unitarian, described people in his novel Breakfast of Champions as “unwavering bands of light.” You might, someday, take a chance to look upon everyone you encounter as “unwavering bands of light.”
These are related to the vertical aspect of the power of the Cross.
Many people see the horizontal bar of the Cross as balancing the vertical eros with the horizontal agape.
William Blake wrote a poem “The Clod and the Pebble.” The clod is capable of being formed and reformed, fluidly moving to connect with whatever it touches, while the pebble stubbornly retains its hardness and its solitary identity and insistence.
Despite the poet’s clear preference for the loving kindness of Agape, we need both Eros and Agape in ourselves. St. Valentine’s love is more Agape than Eros, but it does contain both. Romantic love, love of family, love of self, and generosity to others, seeking not itself to please.
The crossbar symbolizes Agape, as our souls reach out to embrace the rest of the world. But the vertical is necessary as we focus on self, and thereby achieve things, especially self-improvement and evolutionary advance.
In the world of Economics, Capitalism is great for the Eros, creating and increasing wealth, but it is lousy at Agape sharing and needs the people, through government, to create loving kindness by sharing wealth.
It doesn’t have to be on or the other. As with so many parts of our life, we need some of both, some of everything, in balance. Like the Cross.
The poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem about the balance in life. It’s titled “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The pet is using the concrete example of a dogfight in the skies of Italy with larger themes, as poets should. It is not mere coincidence that an airplane has the shape of a cross.