This Thursday is Valentine’s day, the day that men give much appreciated clichés such as heart shaped boxes of chocolates, bouquets of roses, and cards with embarrassing little notes to their sweethearts. It’s the one time of the year that a naked baby with a bow and arrow is somehow romantic (most of the time naked children with deadly weapons aren’t romantic at all!). Though some would bemoan a day that seems to exist just to put another dead president in the pocket of Hallmark, I excitedly celebrate a day that celebrates love. But why is February 14th this day? What are its origins? Who was this man named St. Valentine?
Like love itself, St. Valentine is a bit of a mystery. I should know…I spent this morning on Wikipedia. The feast of St. Valentine, February 14th, was first established in the year 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included St. Valentine among all those “…whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” Though there were many different St. Valentines throughout history…and it is difficult to separate legend from truth, there are a couple of stories that share some similarities. According to the official biography of the Diocese of Terni, Bishop Valentine was imprisoned and tortured in Rome on February 14, 273.
The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 tells that St. Valentine was a Roman Priest who was arrested and imprisoned by Claudius II for both performing marriage ceremonies for Christian couples and aiding Christians in other ways during a time when Christians were persecuted in Rome. To help a Christian was a crime. Though Claudius persecuted Christians and imprisoned Valentine, he took a liking to his prisoner, that is, until Valentine tried to convert him. At that point he was beaten and executed by beheading.
A similar story says that while under the house arrest of judge Asterius, Valentine (Valentinus to any Romans reading this) discussed his faith with him—namely the validity of Jesus. Putting Valentine to the test, the judge brought him his adopted blind daughter. If Valentine could restore the girl’s sight, the judge would do anything he asked. Valentine laid his hands upon the girl’s eyes, and her vision was restored. Humbled, the judge asked what he should do. Valentine told him to break all of his idols, fast for three days, and then be baptized. After doing these things, the judge released all the Christian inmates under him, and all his family along with forty others were baptized. Later, Valentine was arrested once again for continuing to serve Jesus, and was sent to Emperor Claudius, who, at first took a liking to Valentine, but as Valentine attempted to convert him, Claudius commanded that he renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. Valentine would not renounce his faith. His love for his Lord was stronger than his fear of death.
What do we take from these stories, and how do they help us celebrate the 14th? It’s true that some of the details of the namesake of this day are fuzzy, but what we do see is a tremendous amount of love in this man. Love for his Lord—that he would serve Christ despite the cost. Love for his brothers and sisters in Christ—that he would serve them despite the cost. Love for an enemy—that he would bring the truth of Christ to the man who ultimately killed him—because he knew it was worth the risk; worth the cost.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). This Valentine’s day I want to remember that love is risky. Not a baby with a bow and arrow kind of risky…that’s just ridiculous. Great love takes great risks for the sake of another—that kind of risky. Would I, like my Lord, give my life for another out of Love? That’s the kind of Valentine…and Christian…I want to be.