You might have noticed comments on social media predicting a crisis for Christians this year because Ash Wednesday falls on St Valentine’s Day, and Easter Sunday is April Fool’s Day. Facebook is assuming the incongruity is too much.
Actually, there are synergies between the secular and sacred calendars that help us see the Gospel more clearly.
First, consider St Valentine. Behind the festival of chocolate and romantic love is an earlier story.
Valentine was originally remembered for decisions that led to his violent death. The records establish that in Rome on 14 February 269 AD, by order of the Emperor Claudius II, one Valentius was beheaded for refusing to deny his faith in Christ. Tradition assumes, probably rightly, that he was a sturdy Christian preacher and healer, perhaps a bishop.
Less securely, but within the seeds of his current reputation, legend also has it that Valentius made a point of marrying couples so that the husbands were ineligible for military service in wartime. In this direct confrontation with imperial edicts, Valentinus was a champion of love over fear of enemies. Did his contemporaries think he was making crazy decisions inspired by a fool-on-a-hill centuries before? Yes, essentially. It’s all about discernment.
Second, what might this have to do with Ash Wednesday? The traditionally stark day at the end of our summer begins the count of 40 days (excluding Sundays) of Lent, the time of prayer and fasting in preparation for the celebration of Easter. It is not a time of austerity for its own sake but of focus on the call of the Gospel; a stepping away from distractions to recalibrate and renew our inner freedom before God.
Lent is a movement towards grace and against idolatry.
Again, it’s all about discernment.
Around the same time as Valentine was in Rome, ‘discernment’, or what it meant to ‘choose the good’, preoccupied the desert communities of Christians in Egypt and Syria. According to the later accounts we have from John Cassian, the desert teachers of the second and third centuries gathered to listen collectively to Scripture, to consider their own lives and what they knew of those around them, in order to identify the keys to wise choices.
The ascesis (extreme discipline) of their lifestyle was like the ascesis of athletes or soldiers or scholars focussed on a task. For the Christian seekers, the key task was to make choices that drew them towards God.
This did not always go well. In the rigorous lifestyle beyond the cities some were prone to self-confident displays of excessive fasting and long prayer, others shrugged off commitments with self-seeking excuses or got caught in distractions (such as the shallow affirmations of power or romance or obedience to the system for its own sake). Rather than one extreme or the other, or even one approach over another, the elders advocated balance, what they called ‘discretion’.
This quality of balance maintained a calm focus on God and the reality of the world, actively challenging fantasies. Choosing well became the most valued spiritual quality, a kind of laser beam of perception that clarified the genuine promptings of the Spirit. Discretion sifted out the false messages that preyed on old wounds and vulnerabilities. In the process, accountability to a loving community was especially important in keeping people honest about themselves.
For these Christians, spiritual wisdom and authority was pivotal and always collective. The capacity for discernment was carefully honed so the community together would become more Christlike in their decisions.
Australian writer Michael Casey summarised this process in the desert communities as a journey from fear to love.
Through increasing trust in God and awareness of their own recurring patterns, Christians learnt an inner freedom, where decisions were made in good faith and readily submitted for scrutiny. Humility and trust were key.
If something can be taught, or if a capacity responds to discipline, it follows that it is not simply innate. Discretion is rather like breathing: we breathe all the time but by learning to be aware and focussed we can breathe more deeply and with better effect. If discretion can be honed so that the capacity to ‘choose the good’ improves, it also follows that without honing, decisions might not be so faithful.
What does it mean then to hone the spiritual tool of discretion? Luke Timothy Johnson’s short book Scripture and Discernment (1996) gives an example of the collective process that is worth exploring here. He calls theology itself a process of ‘ecclesial discernment’ based in the shared reading of Scripture.
He uses the story of the conversion of Cornelius the Gentile as it is presented in Acts 10 and the working out of its implications for the whole community in Acts 15 as an example from Scripture of discernment in action. Johnson traces the theological process of the Christian community making a decision about one of the hottest issues for the early church: whether and how to include Gentiles as equal members alongside Jewish converts.
Luke’s account in Acts differs significantly from Paul’s report to the Galatians, and the question Johnson asks is not ‘What really happened?’ but ‘What does remembering this story in this way mean for the church? Reading closely, he argues that the account goes to some trouble to demonstrate the dynamics of discernment.
As the church wrestles with what it means to stay faithful to God who appears to be doing new things beyond the boundary of the Chosen People, touchstones emerge for the way forward: silence, prayer and both giving account of personal experience and weighing narratives in community are all essential.
The drama of discernment is the work of the whole church – with an assumption that God is the lead actor. As the community hears testimony of events, the stories prompt new insights into Scripture, and evoke recognition of God at work in the lives of people in unexpected and challenging ways.
The testimony that comes from awareness of God in prayer is repeated, tested, and from the experience of individuals, the whole community debates. Disagreement is valued, not feared; challenge and opposition are part of the process. Prayer and accountability to each other and the gospel safeguard the community. Decisions are communicated personally and with pastoral commitment.
It all takes considerable time. The decision-making is connected at every step to their clear (if consistently surprised) understanding of who God is. Contrary to the initial expectation of those learned in the law, they move forward with the conviction that ‘God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). The net effect of the process is that their religious assumptions are upended.
Thirdly, and finally, this brings us back to the calendar that has us celebrating Easter on April Fools Day. Should we be surprised? Hardly. This is precisely the paradox that Christian discernment often uncovers. As Paul put it to the Corinthians by quoting Isaiah: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’…Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1Cor 1: 18-20).
More than Facebook understands, the clash has always been the point.
Co-ordinator of Studies (History)
Pilgrim Theological College
Pilgrim’s subject ‘Authority and Discernment’ begins in July 2018. For more on these themes see K. Massam, ‘Hope is of God: the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia’ in Hope: Challenging the Culture of Despair (2004); and K. Massam, ‘Accountability in Discernment: Our Life and Death is in Our Neighbour’ Conversations: an ejournal of the CTM (2011)