Valentine’s Day – it has become an occasion for flowers, chocolates, greeting cards, and other expressions of love. Yet many people don’t know the origins of this holiday and the courageous stand of the saint for whom it is named.
It is believed that Valentine was a priest serving Rome under Emperor Claudius II. At that time, Rome was embroiled in many costly and unpopular military campaigns. As a result, the emperor was finding it difficult to recruit soldiers to maintain and replenish his armies. Claudius came to believe that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of affection for and obligations to their wives and families.
To overcome this obstacle, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome.
Taking a Biblical Stand
As a Christian leader, Valentine knew the edict flew in the face of biblical teaching and doctrine regarding the sanctity of marriage and of the family. Recognizing the injustice of the decree, Valentine defied the emperor and continued to secretly perform marriages for young lovers.
“The church thought that marriage was very sacred between one man and one woman for their life and that it was to be encouraged,” Father Frank O’Gara of Whitefriars Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, tells David Kithcart of The 700 Club. “The idea of encouraging them to marry within the Christian church was what Valentine was about. And he secretly married them because of the edict.”
Valentinus was arrested by Claudius and placed into the custody of an aristocrat named Asterius.
Lisa Bitel, Professor of History and Religion at the University of Southern California, writes in Smithsonian Magazine: “As the story goes, Asterius made the mistake of letting the preacher talk. Father Valentinus went on and on about Christ leading pagans out of the shadow of darkness and into the light of truth and salvation. Asterius made a bargain with Valentinus: If the Christian could cure Asterius’s foster-daughter of blindness, he would convert. Valentinus put his hands over the girl’s eyes and chanted: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, en-lighten your handmaid, because you are God, the True Light.’”
According to the legend, a miracle took place and the child could see. As a result, Asterius and his whole family were baptized. Unfortunately, when Claudius heard the news, he ordered them all to be executed.
The last words Valentinus wrote were found in a note to Asterius’ daughter – signing it, “from your Valentine.”
Valentine and Romance
According to History.com, legends vary on how the martyr’s name became connected with romance. The date of his death may have become mingled with the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love. On these occasions, the names of young women were placed in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed.
In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to this pagan practice. The Pope questioned the true identity of Valentine, referring to the martyr and his acts as “being known only to God.” At the same time he declared that February 14 be celebrated as St. Valentine’s Day.
According to Elizabeth Hanes of History.com, the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer may have inadvertently created our modern holiday in one of his poems. “Chaucer often took liberties with history,” Hanes writes, “placing his poetic characters into fictitious historical contexts that he represented as real. No record exists of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375. In his work ‘Parliament of Foules,’ he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day – an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,’ he may have invented the holiday we know today.”
The English theater-going audiences embraced this idea, and thus Shakespeare’s lovestruck Ophelia spoke of herself as Hamlet’s Valentine.
“What Valentine means to me as a priest,” explains Father O’Gara, ‘is that there comes a time where you have to lay your life upon the line for what you believe. And with the power of the Holy Spirit we can do that —even to the point of death.”
So in the end, Valentine’s is a story of true love.
There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13, NLT)
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Dr. Craig von Buseck is Managing Editor of Inspiration.org.
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