We all love romance. We all love a good love story. I don’t know if it is ingrained in us to love romance, or a product of Disney marketing, but it does seem like from an early age we are enamored by a good love story. And a love story which started the keeping of Valentine’s Day, now that is a legend worth telling.
The early church was a persecuted church. You might remember from your ancient history that the Romans had a pantheon of gods which they worshipped. They even practiced a strange mix of patriotism and religiosity where once a year they bowed before an image of the current Roman emperor and called him a god. Now the early Christians refused to practice this emperor worship. All they had to do was say, “Caesar is Lord” once a year and their lives would be spared, but the Christians could only say, “Jesus is Lord” and so their Christian faith cost them their lives. This persecution lasted on and off for over three hundred years until Constantine rose to power in about 306 A.D. Because of their behavior the Romans had a name they gave to the Christians. The name was "atheist." Today we call a person an atheist who doesn’t believe in God, but in those days they called someone an atheist who did not believe in the pantheon of Roman gods.
During this first three hundred years of church history many Christians went to their death for their faith. In fact a new word was coined to describe what was happening in the Roman Empire, the word “martyr.” The Greek word which is translated to “bear witness” in our English Bibles is “marturia.” So many Christians lost their lives bearing witness that this word no longer meant to simply bear witness. Now it meant to die for their faith. This word grew into our English word martyr. There was something very unique about these martyrs, though, which slowly over time was going to change the very heart of Rome. These Christians went to their death praying and forgiving their persecutors. The martyred Christians prayers were beginning to have a profound effect on their tormentors. Because they didn’t hate their jailers and the Roman gladiator who took their lives, but prayed for them, slowly a nation’s heart toward Christianity was being changed. Christian martyrs went to their deaths loving their abusers. It was into this world that we first hear the love story of St. Valentine.
I was an adult before I heard the story behind the tradition of giving valentines. In ancient Roman times February 14th was a holiday to honor Juno. Juno was the queen of the Roman gods and goddesses. The Romans also knew her as the goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the feast of Lupercalia.
The lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate in ancient Rome. However, on February 14th, the evening before the festival of Lupercalia, the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and then they would be paired for the duration of the festival. Sometimes the pairing would last an entire year, and often a young couple would fall in love and later marry. This is where our tradition of putting valentines in a box or jar came from.
Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius the Cruel, as he was sometimes called, was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military exploits. He believed the reason was Roman men did not want to leave their loves or their families. As a result Claudius canceled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Like many egotistical Caesars before him Claudius had also outlawed Christianity at this time because he wished to be praised as the one supreme god, the Emperor of Rome. Valentine was a Christian bishop of Interamna, a town about 60 miles north of Rome, during this period of oppression. Bishop Valentine thought that the decrees of Rome were wrong and that people should be free to love God and to marry. Valentine invited the young couples of the area to come see him. When they came, Valentine secretly performed services of matrimony and united the couples.
Valentine was eventually caught and was brought before the emperor. The emperor saw that Valentine had conviction and drive that was unsurpassed among his men. Claudius tried and tried to persuade Valentine to leave Christianity, serve the Roman Empire and the Roman gods. In exchange, Claudius would pardon him and make him one of his allies, with all the power and privilege Claudius could give him. Bishop Valentine held to his faith, though, and did not renounce Christ. Because of this the emperor sentenced him to a three-part execution. First, Valentine would be beaten, then stoned, and finally decapitated.
Valentine tried to stay cheerful as he awaited his execution. Many young people he had tried to help came to the jail to visit him. They threw flowers and notes up to his window. They wanted him to know they believed in the sacredness of married love. One new friend who began to visit Bishop Valentine at this time was Asterious, the blind daughter of his jailer. Being a merciful man Valentine prayed for Asterious’ healing and God answered his prayer, and she regained her sight. After the miracle Valentine and Asterious fell in love. On the day he was to die, Valentine wrote Asterious a little note thanking her for her love, loyalty, and friendship. He signed the note, “Love from your Valentine.” Even today, this message remains as the motto for our Valentine’s Day celebrations. First Valentine was beaten, then he was stoned and at last he was decapitated because he would not renounce Christ and because he believed in the sacredness of married love. Bishop Valentine was martyred on February 14, 270 A.D.
Isn’t that a great love story? Valentine was able to love his jailer, even seeing the daughter of his jailer healed of her blindness, because God first loved Valentine and filled Valentine with his love. There is a wonderful passage in the gospel of John which explains how Valentine and the other martyrs of the early church were able to show such love, forgiveness and perseverance when they faced death. Look at John 3:16-21.
16) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17) For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18) Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19) And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20) For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21) But whoever does what is true comes in the light so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.