I don’t know much about the modern development of Valentine’s Day. That is, I don’t know how it evolved from your run-of-the-mill saint day (honoring St. Valentine, who was martyred in 269 AD), to the chocolate-stained worldliness of bad dates and romantic comedies. But I recently read a little bit of the former in preparation for a chapel message at school, and I learned of certain modern practices that can be delightfully traced back to the eponymous saint. I give these stories to you with a caveat: like most hagiography, there is limited assurance in the veracity of them besides the fact that this guy existed, preached the gospel, and was killed for it. Now he’s the patron saint of epilepsy and beekeeping (which seems like a dangerous combination). Nevertheless …
In the city of Terni, northeast of Rome, in the third century, there lived a man named Valentine. Those were the days of tenuous legality for Christians, who were often violently persecuted for their faith. So it was that in the course of his vocation as a Bishop, Valentine was imprisoned for his faith. Like St. Paul before him, Valentine took the occasion to proselytize to his captor. The judge who imprisoned him put a challenge before Valentine: if he could heal the blindness of the judge’s daughter, then the judge would know that Jesus was truly the resurrected Son of God.
Piece of cake. Or rather, piece of heart-shaped chocolates.
The daughter was miraculously healed, and the judge believed. Like the Philippian jailer before him, he and his entire household believed and was baptized. Valentine was set free to preach openly again. He spent much of his time consoling and ministering to the persecuted Christians of Rome and the surrounding areas. Even more poignantly, Valentine secretly performed the marriage ceremonies of Christian couples so that the men could dodge conscription into the military, which openly worshipped pagan gods. As a reminder of their vows, Valentine would cut heart shapes out of pieces of parchment and give them as gifts to the couples.
Fast forward (for who knows how long), and Valentine was arrested again. This time (again, like Paul), he managed to proselytize to the emperor himself—Claudius II. Unlike the judge from before, Claudius could not be convinced of the preacher’s message either by logic, rhetoric, or miraculous sign. So it was demanded of Valentine that he renounce his faith or be executed. Unsurprisingly, Valentine chose death. Legend has it, just before his execution, he wrote a short letter to the girl whose blindness he had healed so long ago. Signed: “Love, your Valentine.”
Then they beat him to death with clubs and cut his head off at the Piazza in Rome.
Again, true or not (and there are other stories about him floating around in the ether), hagiography is always fascinating and encouraging to me. And as the Lutheran Confessions state, the saints who have gone before us can be looked to as examples and testimonials of the faith. So this Valentine’s Day, let us remember to thank God for the work that our brother Valentine did so long ago: he proclaimed the gospel to everyone with the intensity of a young man wooing a maiden; he defied his emperor’s orders for the sake of love and marriage; and he gave tokens (Valentines) to people to remind them of Christ’s love and commitment toward us.
Above all, he willingly suffered the beatings and murder of his authorities rather than fall away from his faith in the one who suffered and died for him: Jesus Christ.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day.