By Rev. Dallas Henry
We don’t usually think of Valentine’s Day as an explicitly Christian holiday. Other major holidays have obvious Christian origins: Christmas (Christ’s incarnation) and Easter (Christ’s resurrection), but Valentine’s Day? It’s true that Valentine’s Day is not connected with an event in the life of our Lord like Christmas and Easter are, but Valentine’s Day does have some intriguing Christian roots. Along with most holidays, Valentine’s Day has suffered from its share of commercialization and confusion, yet the moving story of the original Valentine’s Day is worth remembering.
After about 1,700 years of history, it’s kind of hard to know exactly who St. Valentine was and what he did. The story is embedded somewhere in the depths of history, never to be known until we get to heaven. What follows may be part tradition and part truth, but completely fascinating.
The year was 270. The Roman Empire was engaged in a desperate attempt to retain the Pax Romana that had endured for centuries. Christianity was active during the 3rd century. Although Christ had died over two centuries prior, Christians were eagerly propagating their faith and churches were springing up everywhere. These early centuries of the church were the times of the great apologists such as Clement, Ignatius, Origen, Polycarp, Athanasius, and Chrysostom. But the 3rd century was also the time of the Christian martyrs. Prior to Constantine, the empire was not friendly to Christianity – not at all. Claudius, the reigning emperor of the time, was a warlord, intent only upon preserving his empire and routing out his enemies. Christianity was not on his “like” list. His primary interests were military, and he would stoop to nothing to ensure that his mighty army remained loyal to him.
It was Claudius’s grip on the military that led him to install a very foolish policy empire-wide. Claudius had a problem on his hands when it came to his army. He discovered that his men actually preferred to get married and stay home with their wives and families rather than risk their lives and sacrifice for their country! Military recruiting was suffering because of the affection between man and wife. Love was getting in the way of patriotism! Claudius would have none of it. Being the man with the big stick, he could make laws and enforce them, too.
So he did. Claudius passed a law forbidding marriage. Obviously, this was an outrage but he was serious.
Living in this anti-Christian and anti-marriage climate, was Valentine. Valentine was a Christian priest in Rome. He knew from the Bible that marriage was good and honored by God. He knew that marriage was lawful according to the Christian faith, so he took it upon himself to perform Christian marriages -contrary to the law. As a priest, he performed secret marriages for couples who desired to be married bravely defying the anti-marriage edict. It wasn’t just marriages that Valentine was working on. He was also trying to protect persecuted Christians who were being chased down and hunted by the aggressive Roman leaders. Christians knew that they could flee to Valentine to find protection.
Valentine was taking a huge risk in performing marriages in secret. Not only was it absolutely forbidden to marry or to perform marriages, but it was also a criminal offense to aid or abet Christians – especially ones whom the Roman Empire had on their hit list!
Valentine was enmeshed in what the Roman Empire considered high treason and traitorous activity. Although he was being loyal to his faith, he was flying in the face of Roman law.
One story reported that one evening he was performing a wedding at his church with the doors locked, no lights burning, and all speaking done in whispers. The soldiers first knocked on the doors and eventually broke them down. He quickly finished his last wedding, sent the new couple fleeing out the side door just as the soldiers came running down the aisle to apprehend him.
The Roman government locked him up in prison. Now, Valentine – protector of Christians and performer of marriages – was himself suffering for his love and devotion to God.
It got worse. Valentine, true to his bold character, tried to convert Emperor Claudius to Christianity. That was just too much. Claudius demanded that Valentine recant his faith and submit to the cruel and godless tyranny of Rome. Valentine staunchly refused. Then Claudius condemned him to torture and death.
While in prison St. Valentine was popular with the young people. One of these young people was the daughter of the prison guard. Her father allowed her to visit Valentine in the cell. Sometimes they would sit and talk for hours. She was an encouragement to him. She agreed that Valentine did the right thing by ignoring the Emperor and going ahead with the secret marriages. She and others would write Valentine little notes. On the day he was to die, February 14, 269 A.D., he left a little note thanking her for her friendship and loyalty and signed it, “Love from your Valentine.” The first “Valentine” card.
Although the story of Valentine’s Day is shrouded in mystery, buried in tradition, and (thanks to commercialism) stripped of its significance, we can bring some of the truth back. The truth is, love can’t be squelched, outlawed, or stamped out. The significance of Valentine’s life was not only that he defended love and romance and performed secret marriages. He chose to obey God rather than man. Remembering St. Valentine today, is besmirched by cupids, chocolate, and candlelit dinners – a day founded upon the life of a martyr. Valentine died a bloody death, beaten and beheaded. The truth is, Valentine was in love with his Savior, Jesus Christ. Love for Jesus trumped his love of self. Valentine nobly gave his life for the God he loved.
That is true love. But true love is deeper still. It goes beyond our love for God. I John 4:10; “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” John 3:16 defines love: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Valentine’s Day is all about love.
The greatest love of all is that which sent Jesus to a cross. That kind of love goes beyond mere comfortable Christian existence. That is the kind of love that is willing to take risks, to sacrifice everything, and even to give our lives, if necessary, for Him who loved us.
God, please help your Church to love like that.
This article was first published in Leadership Post, a publication by Rev Dallas Henry.