These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
a st valentines reflection (or, how did we get it all wrong?)
In Nicaragua, February 14 is known as El Día de la Amistad, which translates to something like The Day of Camaraderie. I've always appreciated this since it feels inclusive - it is a day to celebrate a more general love (φιλος) of friends and family, not only lovers.
In our current culture of disposable marriage, Valentine's Day almost seems like an intentional farce - a sarcastic jab at those in romantic relationships that also serves as a guilt trip to husbands. But the day is equally a thorn in the side to single people, which as a result has given rise to the trend of Anti-Valentine's Day parties.
I have no qualms with that. If people want to commiserate or celebrate that they have no relationship obligations, that's great. Party on. And if Valentine's Day gets a husband to do something spontaneous for his wife then that's great too (even if I'd encourage him to rather strive to do acts of love year round instead of merely on one day).
The problem I'm attempting to address here is not lovers or anti-lovers. Neither am I trying to add yet another anti-consumerism rant to the plethora that exist.
Instead, my problem with Valentine's Day is essentially that we've dropped the 'Saint.'
I've learned that when I look up a word for my wife, she doesn't want only the definition but also its etymological history. This is not only my approach to theology but also to holidays such as Valentine's or Halloween (or Christmas). I'm not sure if it's my personality or my existence in this postmodern, hipster era - or a combination of both - but I often question the merits of tradition.
So where does St Valentine's Day come from? I will tell you.1 Valentinus was a priest in the third century during the reign of one Claudius II, who sits among the Roman Empire's (overpopulated) ranks of emperors commanding bloody campaigns. Claudius the Goth, as he was also known, attempted to maintain a strong army and therefore prohibited marriage for infantry-aged men, (rightfully?) believing that unwed soldiers would war with no fear of the fate of wives and children should the young men die in battle thus going into war more readily and with a gung-ho attitude.
The Catholic Church, however, encouraged marriage not only because it was divinely sanctified but also to reduce sexual impurity - such as polygamy and premarital sex, which was common at the time. Valentinus was among the priests who would secretly - and illegally - perform marriages for those who wanted it. On top of that, during Christian persecution it is reported that Valentinus aided and ministered to those who were targeted.
As stories so often go, Valentinus was found out and imprisoned. While incarcerated, Valentinus underwent certain measures to procure a renunciation of his faith. Instead of giving in, though, he attempted to convert the emperor to Christianity, which earned him a three-part sentence of being beaten with clubs, stoning, and finally public decapitation. After each stage, Valentinus was given the opportunity to give up his Christianity, but he continued to refuse.
The story we usually get is much more romanticised - it's a story of a saint who, resigned to his fate, writes one last letter to his lady lover before he dies in jail and signs it 'Your dear Valentine.'2 Aww.
What our retelling often overlooks is that the recipient of the alleged letter was the jailer's daughter. Legend has it that during his imprisonment - and therefore during his refusal to denounce his faith - Valentinus healed his jailer's daughter of her blindness simply by giving his testimony and praying. While some versions say the saint fell in love with the girl, my understanding is that he did not. The letter then would've been more of a follow up and likely an encouragement of faith in Jesus - as well as assurance that his death was not in any way her fault. It probably would not have been a mushy gushy note.
So, if we do the math, what we have here is a man incarcerated not only for illegally marrying lovers and for sheltering persecuted Christians, but also a man who stood up for his faith and in fact died for it. Saint Valentinus is remembered and celebrated in the annuls of Catholic history as a martyr, beheaded around 270 CE outside the Flaminian Gate and allegedly honoured by Pope Julius I with a church in his memory.Today St Valentinus is honoured with the giving of cheesy cards, roses, chocolates, and jewellery.3
Do you see what I'm getting at? For a man who refused to renounce his Christian beliefs - who was not only tortured for them but ultimately killed for them - and a man who, in the face of such a fate, not only performed miracles but also attempted to convert his capturer, we don't seem to be doing his name any favours.
While I don't agree with all of Catholicism, one tradition I lament we don't partake in more often is the honouring and celebrating of great Christian leaders. In our culture, martyrdom is a foreign status that perhaps is misunderstood if not taken for granted - we're not persecuted for our beliefs in the Western world (prohibiting prayers in school is not persecution), but instead we're more or less tolerated among other religions. But so many of our spiritual forefathers endured great trials in the name of Jesus and a large percentage of them were killed for being His followers.
Here we have a day that has permeated our culture - and has taken over the month of February almost entirely - that is named directly after a Roman priest who himself was by all accounts undeniably a martyr - but instead of honouring his sacrifice our culture, which seems to have no real understanding of love and sex, butchers his memory by reducing his martyrdom to fluffy feelings that everyone by default deems disposable.
We as Christians, at the least, who bear the faith for which Saint Valentine died, should be at the forefront of rejecting the lovey dovey holiday (which has simply become a consumerist guilt trip) and honouring the man whose name is tacked onto the date.4
Let's instead remember this weekend the sacrifices made not only in the past for the beliefs we uphold, but also the sacrifices made daily by our brothers and sisters around the world. That, I think, is a sentiment of love Saint Valentine himself would approve of.
1. There are various legends surrounding a saint Valentinus but all end on the same date, thus for argument's sake, and as it seems historically reasonable to do from my (limited) understanding of the accounts, I'm conflating the stories into a coherent singular entity.
2. Therein lies the origin of Valentine's cards, along with the account the saint received letters and flowers while imprisoned from children he helped.
3. The earliest recorded instance of the connection between Valentine's Day and romance is Geoffrey Chaucer's poem, Parliament of Foules. However, there is a pagan connection in the feasts of the Roman goddess Juno - goddess of women and marriage - and the following day's feast of Lupercia. As part of the festivities, all the names of the village girls were put in a jar for the boys to draw out - the girl picked would be that particular boy's partner for the festival, and of course this led to sexual promiscuity being synonymous with the celebrations. For obvious reasons, the church frowned upon this and in 496 CE Pope Gelasius assigned Feb 14 a day in honour of Valentinus since it was his martyr anniversary - and the name picked from a jar was changed to a saint's name of whom the boy was suppose to emulate for the year.
4. It should be noted that some Anglicans and Catholics still observe this as a feast day in his honour.