WHAT TO REMEMBER ON ST. VALENTINE’S DAY
February 7, 2008
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
As many of you know, Lent is perhaps my favorite season in the liturgical year, in part because it has yet to be co-opted by Hallmark, Walmart and all of the other great commercial high-jackers of Holy days.
However, this year, because Lent has come so early, we have one of the great Hallmark holidays in the midst of this season. I am speaking, of course, about St. Valentine’s Day. Both secular and sacred origins of this day are murky to say the least, but here is my attempt to bring it all back into some theological frame of reference.
There are, in fact, three Saint Valentines whose feast day is marked as February 14. Most scholars of hagiography (the study of saints - hagio is Greek for sacred or holy), believe that two of the three Saint Valentines are actually the same person around whom separate legends have been built. One was a priest martyred on the Flaminian Way under Emperor Claudius and the other was the Bishop of Terni who was taken to Rome and martyred. It is this one (two?) with whom we are most concerned on this day.
The two most persistent legends around St. Valentine are as follows. During the reign of Emperor Claudius II in the 3rd Century, the number of wars being prosecuted by the Roman Empire was such that soldiers were much in demand. It came to the Emperor’s attention that many married soldiers either refused to be mobilized or deserted from the field to return to their wives and families. Claudius responded by making it illegal for young men to marry. Valentine, believing the Emperor’s law to be unjust, married young couples in secret. He was discovered and put to death.
The second legend involves Valentine being jailed for his Christian faith, and while in jail, falling in love with his jailor’s daughter who visited him and fed him during his imprisonment. Before being put to death, it is said that he wrote a letter to his love and signed it “from your Valentine,” a phrase that we continue to use to this day.
The date of February 14 as the feast day of St. Valentine is attributed by some to be a Christian appropriation of a Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia, about which I could hold forth at some length, but for the sake of impressing your friends, simply remembering the name should suffice.
St. Valentine’s Day as a widely recognized feast day to not come into its own until the Middle Ages when the romantic stories of St. Valentine became the grist for the troubadours’ mills as they composed and sang epics about chivalry and love. We must always be mindful of the fact that in the Middle Ages the line that we draw between the secular and the sacred did not exist. The life of the community and the life of the Church were inexorably intertwined.
In the 19th Century, with the advent of romanticism, St. Valentine’s Day became, once more, an important day in our culture. As the years have passed, it has become far more a secular celebration than a sacred one.
However, there is an enduring theological essence to what has become a commercialized, secular holiday. The essence of St. Valentine’s Day is that it is, in the final analysis, about love, and the nature of God is love. Anything that can call us back to that deep and ultimate truth about the divine is worth recognizing.
For the Greeks, whose philosophy and language had a powerful impact on the writers of the New Testament, there were at least three types of love: eros, or passionate, romantic love; philia or the love manifested in friendship and familial loyalty; and agape, the love of God for humankind and humankind for God and especially, for Christians, the self-sacrificing, Christ-like love we are called to show forth to all people.
As we help our children prepare cards for their friends, as we choose gifts for our partners and loved ones, as we take advantage of the occasion as an excuse to drop a card to a family member or friend far away, we should be ever mindful that in so doing we are remembering the Christ-like love of the saints and martyrs and of all the people of God who have come before us.
Yours in Christ,