Redeeming St. Valentine
How did we get love and romance associated with Valentine and his likely mid-February death?
If you would like to spend today fawning over loved ones, going out with friends, or treating the day like any other day, we wish you godspeed. If you'd like to use today to tell the story of St. Valentine to make some theological point, go for it. However, there are some things you should know. In what follows, I have teased out the main points of what we know from history. I will attempt to offer a responsible "gospel spin" on this day that is so fraught with saccharine stories and sugary treats.
One story goes like this:
The Roman Bishop Valentine was a pious man, strong in stature and strong in faith. When the evil pagan Emperor Claudius II threatened the Bishop with beheading if he didn't renounce his faith, the Bishop remained true to his name (Valentine is from "Valeo," meaning "strong" in Latin). He proclaimed his faith not only to Claudius but to the jailers and inmates as he awaited his execution.
If you'd like, you can add this miraculous event to the proceedings:
While behind bars, Valentine meets a guard who has a blind daughter. He cures her, the guard and his daughter are converted on account of this miracle. Then they are sentenced to be executed with Valentine. The story continues: as the daughter waited in her solitary cell, Valentine sent her a letter of encouragement, signing it with his name, and thus, the first Valentine.
This next story can be shoehorned into the later stories, or can stand alone:
Once again, we have the evil Claudius II, who is now forbidding men of a certain age to marry. According to the story, he believed that marriage made for weak soldiers. Thus he became the arch-villain to young paramours hoping to get married. When Valentine enters the story as the outlaw priest performing the rite of matrimony, he is thereby associated with love and romance.
Of course, a historian might tell you that Valentine and his cult had nothing to do with love, but that didn’t stop Pope Gelasius I from seizing an opportunity. He was looking for a way to subdue the licentiousness associated with the feast of Lupercalia, a traditional fertility festival, held in the middle of February. So he decreed that the day of Valentine's martyrdom would be celebrated instead of the sexually charged love feast of Lupercalia.
Those are all fine stories. Most stories about the origins of St. Valentine's day weave together a few of these to add a little historical gravitas. There’s just one small problem: none of them are true. There is no historical data to suggest that these stories are anything but later European Romantic era fabrications.
We will get to the "real" story in a minute, but let's first suppose that the fabricated stories of St. Valentine were true. Outside of being a boon for the greeting card industry and possibly some decent trivia, what would these stories do for the church, and for Christians attempting to "redeem" St. Valentine? Would these miraculous stories make us better mates or spouses? Would these tales encourage us to write kind notes to people in jail? They might even encourage the silly culture wars that attempt to baptize pagan rituals with vague Christian ideals.
As mentioned above, you are free to celebrate or not celebrate. Whatever you see fit. But if you were looking to "redeem" St. Valentine, there might be an easier and more historical way of doing it.
So, as for the real St. Valentine, what do we know? Very little. Shockingly little. We do know that someone named Valentine probably died or was buried on February 14th of the Julian calendar (that would be February 27th for us). That being said, Valentine was a pretty common name. Which Valentine was it? We have at least three stories from the Roman world of an individual named "Valentine" who was killed for his faith.
A more interesting question is this: Why are we so interested in the days on which individual people died?
The church, early on, took an interest in commemorating those who died in the faith. Acknowledging those saints who gave their life could encourage believers in similarly dire circumstances, as well as strengthen the faith of all Christians. Putting them on a calendar according to their acts seems entirely consistent with a Christian message that insists on taking time and space seriously. That is, we celebrate particular days because we believe that God became a human on a specific day. Jesus rose again on a particular day, and the Christian year is celebrated according to a calendar. For every observance that might strain the facts, there are those that insist that real dates and places matter, indeed, are essential.
The early church collected stories of martyrs and created a calendar for remembering those whose deaths testified to their faith in the risen Christ. The Medieval church, ever chronicling, added to the church calendar, and by the 17th century, almost all of these saints and days were brought together in the work of Jean Bolland and his Jesuit scribes to create the Acta Sanctorum.
However, these stories and dates were rarely thematic. The time of year might be thematic, but the saint was always recognized for one thing: testifying to the truth of Christianity and the reality of the resurrection of the dead.
These calendars became popular and soon local tradition, the seasons, and the saints’ days began to mix.
So how did we get love and romance associated with Valentine and his likely mid-February death?
The short answer: the Julian calendar (the one that our Gregorian calendar hoped to correct) was all over the place by the Middle Ages, such that by the time Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous "Parliament of Foules," English people had a spring that started mid-February. In his story, the birds began to pair up, two by two, on St. Valentine's Day. Not because Valentine himself had anything to do with love, but because it was easiest to mark the days by the season and the ever-present saints’ days. It sounds wild, but the research is good (see "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February" by Jack B. Oruch in Speculum vol 54 no. 3). Soon, Shakespeare and others began to associate "Valentine" with spring and with the "flourishing" of birds and bees.
As the host of 1517's Christian History Almanac, an almanac of saints days and (in)famous events in church history, I am forever indebted to the work of those who recorded the saints and their stories, eventually creating the Acta Sanctorum. However, when you read enough of them, you begin to see a pattern- the stories of these men and women often tell you more about what people have thought of them, than the actual saint. And in pointing out the sometimes dramatic or humorous quirks of these characters, we find that various cults have arisen to celebrate the individual martyred rather than to the One for whom they gave their lives.
Take, for instance, the numerous characters who had their heads split open for preaching the Gospel- they often become "patron saints" of headaches, migraines, or other head-related maladies. Consider St. Denis, the decapitated 3rd-century bishop who became the patron saint of headaches. Or St. John the Evangelist who is said to have been thrown into burning oil, thereby earning the dubious award of being the patron saint of sunburn sufferers.
These seemingly ridiculous examples help to point out that the saint's day should not magnify the saint. These saints would surely resist becoming the "point" of their stories. These men and women died knowing that their Redeemer lives. In the midst of the worst possible situations, they made heroic sacrifices, not as a redemptive themselves, but because they point to the Great Redeemer.
And so what would Valentine (or the many Valentines) think of their massive popularity with Hallmark, Hershey's, and those in various states of romantic love?
Frankly, it's irrelevant. And if today is a day for you to declare your devotion to someone with a token of your affection, go for it. Christianity sees romantic love not as an antithesis to itself, but as an expression of God's love for us.
But the temporal love we associate with St. Valentine is just that, temporal. And luckily, as we know from Valentine or any other martyr celebrated on the church calendar- the temporal world isn't the end. These men and women gave up their lives for the proposition that there is something more. Something more than the temporal blessings of love, heart-shaped cards, and candy that we associate with Valentine's Day. That something is an eternal love, from an eternal God who is strong to save and has reconciled you to him through the cross of Christ.