“‘If you asked the person in the street, ‘What does Valentine’s Day mean to you?’ all it means is heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and a nice dinner with your beloved and sending cards and so forth,”’ explains Friar Dwight Longenecker, ‘“And if they did know about a Saint Valentine, they probably wouldn’t realize that he was a priest in the late 3rd century in Rome who was actually martyred for the faith. Very often legends will develop from real facts. There’s that little phrase in J.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings where he says, ‘History became legend, and legend became myth.’”
The legend of St. Valentine is a story that is rooted in fact.
“There are three stories surrounding him and they all agree on a number of issues. It seemed that he was born in 226 in a tiny little city called Terni in Umbria in Italy and that he was either a priest or a bishop. Valentine lived during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II, he’s sometimes referred to as Claudius Gothicus. Now, this emperor did not reign for very long, maybe a year and a half,” says Dr. Bekker. “Rome at this point in time was a really a cesspool of immoral behavior; pedophilia was rife; sexual promiscuity was rife. And one of the great witnesses of the early church, is that they stood up for the value of a godly marriage where sexuality was channeled into its God-given boundaries and to become a witness of what enduring love could look like.”
During his reign, Claudius issued an edict that made marriage illegal.
“There was an invasion of Goths towards Rome and they needed a lot of people to go to war,” Dr. Bekker explains. “The rule was that once you were married, you were given freedom not to go to war and Valentine would not only convert the people, but secretly marry them so that they could indeed stay at home.”
Valentine was arrested and brought to Rome. While he was being held captive, he presented the gospel to his jailer, the judge, Asterius.
“‘The judge said to him, ‘Well, if this indeed is true, I want you to prove it.’ And he brought one of his adopted daughters, who happened to be blind, the one legend says. And what happened is that Valentinus, or Valentine, he laid his hands upon this girl and she was healed immediately,”’ Dr. Bekker says.
Another legend says that before he was executed, he left a note for the girl, signed “Your Valentine.” Some say this led to the practice of sending “valentines” on February 14th, the day he was beheaded.
“All the legends seem to agree that Valentine was martyred on the fourteenth of February in 269,” Dr. Bekker declares.
“Therefore, that was the day associated with him when the church would celebrate him and thank God for his life,” Friar Longenecker agrees.
So, Valentine’s day didn’t start out as a romantic holiday.
“We do need to recognize that this day, the fourteenth of February, was already connected with Valentine from the fourth century, already from that time onward,” says Dr. Bekker. “Right from the beginning, this celebration had more to do than just a celebration of romantic love. The church’s commitment to Valentine to honor this example of Christian marriage and sacrifice and martyrdom and the healing of other people and the spread of the gospel was, from the beginning, a commitment to what Christian marriage could be like in our world and the message that it brings to a broken world.”
Valentine’s day represents more than flowers and candy; it’s about what’s in our hearts and the heart of Christ.
“When we see those hearts on Valentine’s Day we can remember that that heart also has some connections back to the heart of Jesus and to God’s love for us,” says Friar Longenecker, “And we can remember that the source of all love and the source of all self-sacrifice and love for each other, is rooted in God’s love, and in the witness that Saint Valentine actually made for that love.”
“For Christians, marriage is more than just a union between and man and a woman,” Dr. Bekker declares. “For Christians, marriage is a holy parable of the love of Christ towards his church. It’s a visible sermon about what holiness and purity could look like in our lives. We should celebrate what true sacrificial love looks like in a broken world and ultimately it should be a day that we celebrate the commitment of Christ who gave his life for his church. It should be a day of evangelism. It should be a day where we celebrate the power of true love to change our world. It is a Christian holiday.”