Who was Saint Valentine? Why is he the patron saint of love?
worthy, strong, and powerful; these are the literal definitions of the name given to this would be saint upon his birth. Yet just as time seems to do, you wouldn’t associate these words with him any longer. When you say the word “Valentine”, you are more likely to conjure up images of chocolate truffles, pink hearts, and swan boats.
Yes, Valentine’s day is once again upon us. Couples and friends alike will flood the supermarkets and Hallmark gift stores to find that perfect item to give to their special someone. Meanwhile, all those within the ranks of single-dom are left reminded that they are without a romantic partner: whether that be by circumstance or by choice.
Valentine’s day might be a hit for retailers but the man-or-men as we will come to learn, who inspired this holiday was far less concerned with fancy candy and candlelight dinners. These men were fighting for their lives and for the lives of those who they tended over. The heart may have become the symbol for Valentine’s day to remind us of our love for one another but the true reminder in this Valentine’s day imagery is what that heart is for. Because in 269 AD amid Christian martyrdom in Rome, blood-red was indeed the color that tainted February 14th as is spilled from the body of Saint Valentine, a man whose name still hangs like a banner over this now holiday.
The tale of Saint Valentine, like many of the more famous saints, is a bit convoluted. It doesn’t take much digging to learn that Saint Valentine was not a single man. No, not single like without a partner, but single as in there were more than one of him. There was actually a handful of Valentini. To make matters even more confusing, there were also at least three Valentines that died on February 14th. The odds seem pretty skewed to me, but thanks to an order of Belgian monks, this is a pretty stable fact. These monks spent centuries compiling every last scrap of evidence to compile the works of the saints throughout the years.
The earliest of the three Valentines were said to have lived and died in Africa along with 24 soldiers. Aaaaannd that’s about all we have on him to be completely honest. But the other two, they are the ones that we will be talking about today.
The second and third Valentines are honestly a bit mixed together. I wanted to make sure and point out that they have adopted very similar stories so for the sake of the story, we will combine them into one person just as history has already done.
Valentine was said to live in Rome during the reign of Gothicus. Once holding the office of the Bishop of Terni, a town in the province of Umbria, Italy, he uprooted and moved to Rome to become a priest to the persecuted Christian Church.
While proclaiming the gospel, he was arrested and placed into the custody of an aristocrat named Asterius. It is said that Asterius, curious as to what this man’s message was, began to converse with Saint Valentine as he served out his sentence via house arrest and servanthood. The more they talked, the more curious Asterius became about the validity of Jesus Christ so to put Valentine to the test, Asterius Brought him to his adopted daughter who was blind.
The bargain was simple: If Valentine could heal his daughter, he would in turn answer one favor on his behalf. Praying to God, Valentine raised his hands to heaven and then down to rest on the young girl’s eyes and they slowly began to open. Within the hour her vision had returned.
Asterius was amazed. A man of his word, he asked Valentine what his request was. The saint declared that all idols in his home were to be broken and that he was to fast for three days and then undergo the Christian sacrament of baptism. Willing and anxious, Asterius did as Saint Valentine decreed and as a result, he, his family, and the 44 members of his household were all welcomed into the Christian faith. And on top of that, he let all of the Christian slaves under his watch go as well!
They say you’re either a lover or a fighter and in Rome around 250AD, this old adage had never rung truer. You see, warriors with their heads in the clouds dreaming about their wives back homemade for some very distracted soldiers on the battlefield. Distracted soldiers meant more fatalities. More fatalities, especially to married men meant more grieving members of society back home. More grief back home could hurt productivity and even the economy.
All that to say, the Roman government much-preferred bachelor warriors over love-struck husbands. There was one thing they had going for them though and that was polygamy. Polyamorous soldiers were naturally more focussed on the task at hand knowing that if something happened to them there would be a small….. um, community(?) to take care of the household should tragedy beseech them.
But as Christendom began its spread through Rome and people became more involved with the church, polygamy began to decline. The Christian Church held firm to the views of single partner marriage and the more their pews began to fill, the fewer worthy soldiers Rome had to pull from.
This led to the persecution of marriage within the Christian Church. But persecution rarely stifles a movement. If anything, it strengthens it. Humanity doesn’t like to be told they are not allowed to do something. It’s kind of been our schtick since the garden, and blessed be us that this applies here too.
Insert Saint Valentine. As he began to catch wind of the persecution and outlawing of marriages within the Christian Church, Valentine knew he could no longer sit idly by. They took their marriage ceremonies behind closed doors so to speak. Now the Roman government had a MAJOR problem on their hands.
Roman marriages were typically arranged and seen more like a business deal than a romantic affair. When a young man would marry, it would give him an out from military service. This worked fine in a society less concerned about romance and marriage but when the Christian Church came in, it all began to change. here comes Saint Valentine helping people break tradition and enter into a covenant not because of what they think but because of how the felt. More covenant marriages, fewer soldiers: simple as that.
A little couple of side notes: It is said that Saint Valentine would cut out small hearts made of parchment and give it to the men to remind them of their vows and God’s love which is why the symbol of the heart became a centerpiece in our romance holiday. Oh, and this, of course, is why Saint Valentine became known as the patron saint of love.
As their already thin armies began to spread even thinner and Christianity’s hold gripped tighter, Emperor Claudius Gothicus, also known as Claudius II began to take notice. He had heard of a man that had healed the daughter of his appointed aristocrat and yet was now leading a reformation of marriage right beneath his nose. He was curious. He was anxious. He was angry.
Emperor Claudius called for the imprisonment of Saint Valentine so he could have a moment to grapple with what all was at stake. Upon his capture, they brought him before Claudius and gave him a chance to speak his mind. Of course, a saint wouldn’t dare plead for his life in a time like this. He had an audience with the highest official in Rome. This was no time four begging, this was a time for ministry!
Valentine began to share the gospel with Emperor Claudius but the words fell a bit short. Enraged at what had been going on, Saint Valentine was sentenced to a three-stage death. Saint Valentine was drug outside the gates of the city and into the town square. He was then beaten with clubs, stoned, and ultimately beheaded.
But Valentine had one more trick up his sleeve. Before he was removed from his cell and taken to meat his fate, he managed to write a note that he knew would be found by his old friend, Asterius the aristocrat who’s the daughter he had healed. He scribbled on a piece of tattered parchment a message to be read by the daughter that simply stated that he would always watch over her. Signed, Your Valentine.
Saint Valentine’s body was tossed out but later discovered in the 1800s deep within a Roman catacomb. His skeleton was then distributed across the countryside to churches as a relic from the Christian past. His skull remained in Rome in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. There you can still find it resting, adorned in flowers on display. Other parts of Valentine can be found in the San Anton Church in Madrid, Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Prague, Saint Mary’s Assumption in Chelmno, Poland, as well as churches in Malta, Birmingham, Glasgow, and on the Greek isles.
February 14th, Valentine’s day is set in our calendars as a reminder of all that our history has told us about love but romance is a whole other story. While we do know that three Saint Valentines died on this same date, what hasn’t always been is the association with passion. The romance didn’t come into play up until 1,000 years or so after the Saint’s death. Up until then, Valentine’s day was just another feast holiday. So how did that all come into the mix?
The first theory worth looking at is to take notice of how close Valentine’s day falls to the mid-February Roman festival known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a festival closely associated with the god, pan. During this time blood sacrifices would be made while men dressed only in thongs cut from the skins of their animal sacrifices danced about in the streets; not unlike what numerous men continue to do behind closed doors most valentine’s day evenings. These rituals were said to aid in the birthing process for expectant mothers as well as to invite fertility to those who had not yet conceived. Ah, love is in the air.
Luckily, the second and more prevalent theory has to do less with cult festivals and more to do with the natural order of creation. European nobility began to notice birds pairing off and laying eggs in mid-February. Geoffrey Chaucer, author of “The Canterbury Tales” went on to write a poem known as “The Parlement of Foules” that pairs the birds’ natural mating habits and the arrival of Valentine’s day. Things snowballed from there and before you know it, people were passing cute love notes back and forth to mimic the natural cycles of the mating season. Even the French Duke of Orléans and Shakespeare got on board. And just like that, Saint Valentine’s day narrowed its focus down and cast its namesake into the ocean of time, forever immortalized as the day of romance.
Humans love relics. It could be a chunk of rock, bone, wood, or a parer heart adorned with symbols from the past. Or maybe it’s something as simple-yet-complex as a great story. Whatever the case, we cling to these totems to remind us where we have been and the story of Saint Valentine is no different. There is no way of knowing how much of the tales we read are true if they are attributed to one man, three, five, or even a dozen. Maybe they are a compilation of years summed up under one title, like leather-bound book houses multiple chapters. Or maybe it’s just a historical exaggeration.
Either way, I don’t think it matters. Early Jewish teachers and Christians alike knew the beauty of a great story. They contemplated and wrote according to the message that they hoped one would receive rather than the specificities. Every word is a vessel. Picture it like a small ship carrying its load into port. And if words are like ships than stories are like a fleet coming to stock an entire town with supplies. Storys paint for our pictures, convey ideas, and give us a common ground. Learning turns from work to leisure and we hold fast to what we gather.
So this Valentine’s day, or any day from that matter, let these stories drive you forward. Yes, the chocolate is delicious and the romance is pleasurable but the true beauty of Saint Valentine is not what he did for a judge’s daughter or some Roman love birds. It goes much deeper than that. It’s about the epitome of love itself.
Every friend, family member, or romantic partner that is in your life is there to show you a facet of true love: the love of Christ. We can get so distracted trying to understand God but if we for a moment would stop lofting our gaze up to the heavens and instead down to the eyes of our fellow humans, we would experience God’s love in a way nothing else could ever match. Every set of eyes reflects a new facet of God’s love so take a moment and show those around you that same love in return. Allow your preconceived notions to fall, expand your sight and allow that love to pour in from all directions. It’s there and waiting as soon as we are ready.
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