When it comes to Valentine’s Day most of us think of roses, chocolates, romantic dinners and greeting cards. Yet St Valentine’s Day is named after a third century martyr who was beheaded after being imprisoned and beaten.
How did we get from beheading to romance?
The history of St Valentine is unfortunately rather muddled. Much of what we know belongs in the domain of later legend rather than verifiable history. It is likely there were two Christians known as Valentine who were both executed under Emperor Claudius II Gothicus in the third century. Apparently, both died on 14th February – what are the chances? – although not in the same year.
According to legend, one Valentine was a Bishop in Terni (Italy) who ignored the Emperor’s decree banning the marriage of soldiers. Claudius II thought single men made better fighters, but the kind-hearted Valentine continued to marry couples in secret. For this defiance, he was ordered to be executed.
The other Valentine also attracted the ire of the Emperor, in his case for visiting imprisoned Christians and possibly helping them escape.
In this version, Valentine fell in love with a female prisoner and wrote her a note signed “from your Valentine”. Thus the legend began.
In some accounts these two Valentines are conflated entirely and the imprisoned, wedding-mad bishop fell in love while locked up awaiting death and wrote the famous note to the object of his love. Other stories claim the healing and converting ministries of these two men were what attracted the wrath of the Emperor in a pre-Christian era.
Behind these now rather romanticised tales lies a darker reality.
Whatever Valentine did, he was killed by a powerful Emperor for living out his Christian faith. The common thread in the legends is that Valentine was exercising ministry in a hostile world: be it healing, conversion, marriage liturgies, or the potentially subversive support of political prisoners.
Valentine’s life highlights the complexity of Christian calling and reminds us of a number of timeless issues: that care for God’s people comes at personal cost, that our Christian calling can place us in conflict with the values of the world, and that sometimes what is moral is not the same as what is legal.
The Uniting Church doesn’t commemorate Saints in the same way the Roman Catholic church does, but we share the same Christian history.
While Valentine continues to be commemorated in the Catholic tradition as the Saint for marriage and young people, he is additionally an exemplar for ministry for all Christians. The legends that flourished about him reflect our human desire for heroes and hope, and perhaps a little romance!
Contemporary celebrations of Valentine’s Day, however, have more to do with Chaucer than the early church.
Chaucer’s lengthy poem, Parlement of Foules, was written in 1382 to celebrate the engagement of King Richard II to Anne. In it he refers to St Valentine’s Day as the day “whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” (when every bird comes to choose its mate).
Perhaps Chaucer invented a tradition or perhaps he was reflecting a sentiment already in the air, but the practice of sharing a handmade card with one’s love became popular around this time.
So this Valentine’s Day you have a richness of traditions upon which to draw.
Not being a massive fan of Middle English poetry or mandated romance, I’ll be remembering the third century Valentine and all like him who died for their faith.