This close to Valentine’s Day, it seemed appropriate to remember the real St. Valentine. He was a real person–just like St. Patrick and St. Nicholas. We’ve tended to mythologize them because of their associations with special days like Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas, but their faith and their lives were exemplary. St. Valentine’s life is worth looking at again–or maybe even for the first time.
February 14 marks the date of Valentine’s martyrdom. St. Valentine was a Roman saint of the third century. The name Valentine means “worthy,” and St. Valentine was not the only notable Valentine to bear the name. Others with the same name have also figured prominently in church history. With the assistance of archaeological evidence, the information about this Valentine who is associated with Feb. 14 is thought to be highly accurate, though some details may be embellished.
Valentine was a physician as well as a priest and lived in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius II (268-270 AD). At this particular time in history, it was illegal to be a Christian or to offer them any assistance. Claudius sought to re-establish the glorious reputation of Rome by building up a volunteer army. He noted that unmarried men were more inclined to serve than married men, so he outlawed marriages. Persons who were already married could remain so, but unmarried people could not marry.
As a priest, Valentine often married people, even after Claudius’ decree against it. Upon discovering Valentine’s disobedience, Claudius had him arrested. In a strange twist, Claudius came to like Valentine–until Valentine made a strategic error: He tried to convert Claudius to the forbidden Christian faith. The Emperor became furious and ordered Valentine’s death.
Though we identify Valentine with a kind of sentimental love, his love was much more profound. It was the love of Jesus that was the source of Valentine’s love–for those he married, for those he healed, for those he served. Remembering this saint of the church, we celebrate Valentine’s Day with love for God and for one another.
Juli Sutton-Deem is pastor at Light of the Cross Lutheran Church in Garrison.