It would be nice to know the true story of Saint Valentine, but alas, it seems to have been lost somewhere in the mists of history. Hard facts are hard to come by. According to Catholic Online, “Valentine was a holy priest in Rome, who, with St. Marius and his family, assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II. He was apprehended, and sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome,” where he was beaten with clubs and beheaded. This happened in the year A.D. 270 (although not necessarily on February 14, as one might have expected).
That much is probably true, but what’s love got to do with it? According to legend, Claudius had Valentine killed because he continued to marry young couples in secret even after the emperor had forbidden it, possibly because he wanted Roman soldiers to remain single. Because of his defiance to the emperor’s anti-marriage agenda, Valentine became the Patron Saint of Lovers.
This is not the only version of the story, however. Early manuscripts mention at least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs. One is said to have been a third-century priest in Rome, another to have been a bishop from somewhere else, and a third to have come from somewhere in Africa.
According to one version of the story, Valentine antagonized the Roman Emperor by preaching the gospel and by giving aid to the victims of imperial persecution. He was arrested and thrown in prison. There—according to yet another legend—he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter. Some say that he cured her of her blindness. Others tell a similar story in connection with the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415. But in any case, the story ends with the doomed lover pouring out his love to his beloved in passionate epistles, and before his execution sending one final letter, signed “From Your Valentine.”
There are also various explanations as to why Valentine’s Day should be associated with February 14. Some people say this tradition goes back to Roman times, and that it is connected to the erotic Roman festival of Lupercalia, when sexual partners would be drawn by lottery. Celebrating Valentine’s Day was the church’s attempt to sanctify this pagan revel. Others say the custom did not arise until the Middle Ages, when the middle of February was considered to be the time when songbirds began to pair off. As Geoffrey Chaucer has it in his Parliament of Fools:
For this was sent on Saint Valentine’s Day
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.
There is, of course, nothing sacred about celebrating Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, the day does have its virtues. Certainly it must be said that most men need every encouragement to show tangible affection to the women they love. Are you surprised to learn that of the one billion Valentine cards that are exchanged each year, 83% of them are purchased by women? Not if you’ve been paying attention, you’re not. What could be more useful, therefore, than a holiday that encourages men to show a little romance?
Since at least the Fourteenth Century, Valentine’s Day has been an occasion for sending letters, flowers, and other tokens of personal affection. In the 1840’s people started sending commercially made Valentine’s Day cards, and in more recent times, it has become common to give jewelry and chocolates. Far be it from me or anyone else who wants people to stay in love to discourage these expressions of affection.
On the other hand, Valentine’s Day can be one of the hardest holidays of the year for people who get overlooked. At the same time that it embraces some people, Valentine’s Day gives other people the cold shoulder. And when romance is in the air, it is painfully isolating to be left out. So Valentine’s Day is a mixed blessing, at best.
Yet perhaps we can still make good use of the holiday by reflecting on some of its noble virtues. Whether they are true or not, the legends about Saint Valentine have a moral purpose.
Some of these legends encourage us to defend marriage. What threatens this God-given institution today is not some imperial edict, but the open acceptance of sexual relationships—whether heterosexual or homosexual—outside the sacred bonds of marriage. Valentine’s Day is a good time to remember that marriage is a gift from God, and that it consists of one man living in a love covenant with one woman for life (see Gen. 2:24; Mal. 2:14–16).
Other Valentine legends promote sexual purity. Today sexual partners are not determined by lottery, but given the casual coupling that goes on in some communities, they might as well be. As we live in this sexually self-destructive and pornographic society, we long for the union of passion and purity that makes for the truest romance. Valentine’s Day is a good time to remember that we were not made to engage “in sexual immorality and sensuality,” but to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (see Rom. 13:13–14).
Finally, the martyrdom of Saint Valentine encourages us to live for Christ, even to the point of sacrifice. Nowhere is this more necessary than in our romantic relationships. Especially for those of us who are husbands (or preparing to be husbands), Valentine’s Day is a good time to remember that we are called to love others more than ourselves, and to give ourselves in love through daily deeds of sacrificial service.
To think about these noble virtues is to be reminded of Jesus Christ, the lover of our souls. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org