“Who was St.Valentine?”
It’s a question that I get asked often around this time of year. And the answer is: “It’s kind of complicated.”
The truth is that we don’t really know that much about St. Valentine. Actually, there are two, possibly even three, different persons in history connected with the name. One Valentine lived in Rome and served as a priest during the reign of Claudius II in the 3rd century AD. The emperor purportedly banned the institution of marriage out of fear that men would not want to leave their wives and go off to war. In defiance, Valentine performed weddings, which prompted his arrest and execution.
The other Valentine was a bishop in Terni, Italy who evidently lived at the same time. He is credited for performing the first marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian, and the evil Claudius had him killed too. Both martyrs were buried on the Flaminian Way, just outside the Roman city gates.
Although it is difficult to know whether these stories are historically true, people have been invoking Valentine’s memory ever since. In 1381, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem to celebrate the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. He referenced a feast day named after St. Valentine and remarked that it was on this same date that every bird “comes forth to find its mate.” The day was February 14.
The connection between St. Valentine and early spring romance caught on, and continues to this very day. Interest in the man appeared again in the 19th century when Pope Pius IX gave the saints bones to Bishop John Henry Newman, who brought the relics back to Birmingham, England.
Recently, however, Saint Valentine has fallen on hard times. In 1969, the Catholic Church officially dropped his feast day from the church calendar, a concession to the fact that the historical man may be lost to us – buried under mountains of tradition.
Today, modern people wonder whether love itself, the virtue which St. Valentine’s name evokes, is on its way out too. The Billboard pop chart is filled with songs that mention love, but drip with cynicism and insincerity about the topic. But that kind of skepticism usually comes from people who have never felt what it’s like to really be cared for and regarded with true affection. Instead, as Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented, “People live lives of quiet desperation.” And in the Gospel According to Our Comedians, love is little more than a cruel joke. As Woody Allen once said, “I sold my memoirs about my love life to Parker Brothers and they’re going to make a game out of it.”
In times of doubt, in moments of suffering and failure, we still cling to our faith that love is real. As a a boy, I remember looking up at my mother in church as she sang what she believed about love, often with tears rolling down her face. These days, I have come to understand better that Jesus also spreads his message of love through his friends. In the times of our greatest sorrows, what can better calm a troubled heart like someone close to you saying what the Lord said to Joshua before he went to war to reach the Promised Land: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis talks about how much The Inklings, his inner circle of friends that included J.R.R. Tolkien, meant to him. He describes their ritual of gathering together at their Oxford pub, stretching out in front of a blazing fire, talking, laughing, and feeling genuine love and acceptance in that fellowship. “Life,” Lewis writes, “has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?” The answer is none of us. So this Valentine’s Day, get rid of your cynicism and give thanks for those who love you – just as you are.