When February rolls around, we all start thinking about how we might do something romantic for that special person in our lives (or for that person we’d like to have more of in our lives). By the 14th, lovers have probably formed some kind of knockout plan to demonstrate their affections to one another (at least, as much as one can do for a holiday!).
Valentine’s Day is a staple of Western (and even some non-Western) culture, but why do we celebrate it? Why do we exchange flowers and chocolates and mushy letters in the wintertime?
Answer: it truly is all about love!
Valentine’s Day is named after Saint Valentine of Rome, a third century Church leader who was martyred by Roman Emperor Claudius II because of his Christian beliefs and practices. As Father Frank O'Gara of Whitefriars Street Church in Dublin, Ireland explains, the actual story is far more serious and deep than our current tradition might indicate.
He was a Roman priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudius who persecuted the church at that particular time. He also had an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died.
Keep in mind that the pagan Roman world was a rather permissive society, one in which polygamy was easily accepted. Indeed, it would have been more likely at the time for men to have multiple wives than just one. Conversely, at the same time, in the third century A.D., Christian morality began to spread across the known world, changing social mores, though not without resistance of people like Claudius.
Christian orthodoxy demands that marriage be between one man and one woman, and declares marriage as a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the Church. In spite of Claudius’ decree, Saint Valentine took to marrying young people in secret. It was the ultimate act of defiance, for the Roman emperor proclaimed no equal on earth.
Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned, and tortured for violating Claudius’ decree. However, he did not stop his work for God in spite of this.
One of the men who was to judge him in line with the Roman law at the time was a man called Asterius, whose daughter was blind. He was supposed to have prayed with and healed the young girl with such astonishing effect that Asterius himself became Christian as a result.
Valentine was sentenced to death in 269 A.D., and was executed by beating, stoning, and finally decapitation. It’s not known for sure, but it is believed that he died on February 14 (hence, why we have the holiday on that date).
What can we learn from Valentine? Several things: One, true love is more than simply giving trivial gifts of sweets and flowers. Love is a lifetime dedication no matter how you feel at a given point. Love means doing what is best for another person.
Imagine how Valentine must have felt conducting marriages in secret; think he ever thought of giving it up to avoid potential death? He did what he believed was right in spite of Rome’s decrees.
Second, for Christian believers, any demand to renounce Christ in exchange for living is forbidden. To renounce God during this life on earth would merit nothing more than being denounced by God when we come before Him. Valentine understood this, and gave his life for it. Christians in the 21st century are expected to share this perspective.
So on this Valentine’s Day, consider the deeper meaning behind this celebration. It’s not about the candy and flowers, but about a true devotion to what is good, true, and beautiful, both to our earthly and our eternal loves.