When I stopped by the store on the way home tonight, I saw a dozen men lined up along the greeting card rack, trying to find a last-minute card on the way home from work that expresses how much they care for their girlfriend or wife, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight. And yet, is that all this holiday is about?
Now, prior to today I knew vaguely that this day was named after a saint, but I didn’t really know why, and since the stories of Saint Patrick and others are such great testimonies of faith, I thought I’d see what Saint Valentine did to get himself his very own holiday. After all, he has been celebrated for centuries, so Hallmark couldn’t have made it up– they haven’t been around that long.
The History Channel has one version of the story, which neatly crops out the influence that Saint Valentine’s faith had on his actions. Wikipedia has another, Time has another, and websites with the backing of the Catholic Church have yet another. Truth be told, whatever happened, it happened around the year 269 or 270, so no one can know for sure. No one is even sure that Saint Valentine was just one man. But here are a couple of stories attributed to him.
Saint Valentine was the former Bishop of Terni, a city in southern Umbria, in what is now central Italy. While under house arrest of judge Asterius, Valentinus (the Roman pronunciation of his name) was discussing the validity of Jesus. The judge put Valentinus to the test and brought to him the judge’s adopted blind daughter. If Valentinus succeeded in restoring the girl’s sight, Asterius would do anything he asked. Valentinus laid his hands on her eyes and the child’s vision was restored. Immediately humbled, the judge asked Valentinus what he should do. Valentinus replied that all of the idols around the judge’s house should be broken, the judge should fast for three days, and then undergo baptism. The judge obeyed and as a result, freed all the Christian inmates under his authority. The judge, his family and forty others were baptized. Valentinus was later arrested again for continuing to serve Jesus and was sent to the prefect of Rome, to the emperor Claudius himself.
Under the rule of Claudius the Cruel, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform Christian marriages for young lovers in secret.
Here the stories differ, and I doubt there’s any way for us to know what’s true. One account says that when Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, on or about the year 270.
Another account says that Claudius had in fact taken a liking to Valentine, at least until Valentinus tried to lead Claudius to Jesus, whereupon Claudius refused and condemned Valentinus to death. Commanding that Valentinus either renounce his faith or he would be beaten with clubs, and beheaded, Valentinus refused and Claudius’ command was executed outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269.
After delving into the history of the holiday, it becomes clear why it was associated with love and appreciation for those in your life. In one story, the priest Valentine risked his life to continue marrying young Romans in secret, and was killed when he was discovered. What a dramatic, romantic idea! It even sounds like it could be a plot twist in a romance novel.
And yet, the second story has a deeper kind of love that Saint Valentine demonstrated, and that we can work to emulate every day of our lives– Jesus’ love, shown through us.
This ruler was named Claudius the Cruel, for crying out loud. Valentine knew cruel Claudius hated Christians, and yet he still tried to teach him about Jesus, because that is exactly what our Lord instructed him to do. Valentine acted as Jesus’ hands and feet in this world, teaching and showing His love, and spreading the Good News to everyone, including a sociopathic monarch (theocrat? not sure). I’m positive that Valentine knew exactly the consequences of his actions, and he evangelized to Claudius anyway. Because THAT’S how important it is to spread God’s love.
Just think of how many times you’ve shied away from mentioning you’re a Christian, because you didn’t want to get looks. Or you had the opportunity to share your faith with a stranger having a rough time, but you didn’t want to seem “pushy” or “preachy”. Don’t those excuses sound a bit hollow now? Here came Saint Valentine, who knew the consequences would be death if he lived his faith in that hostile kingdom, and not only did he live his faith, but he tried to convert the king! Talk about audacity. He was prepared to live and to die for his Lord.
So let’s start a new Valentine’s Day tradition next year, in keeping with the true spirit of Saint Valentine. Next Valentine’s, as you’re browsing the aisles of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, think about what would happen if you were to turn to someone standing next to you and share God’s love with them. What’s the worst that could happen? If it’s anything less than a beheading, we really don’t have any excuses, do we?