This Sunday, 14th February, is St Valentine’s Day, a date on which it has become traditional to send an often anonymous card to one’s sweetheart. St Valentine’s Day has been described as one of the year’s big gifting days, along with Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, when people express love in the giving of flowers, chocolates, cuddly toys and other tokens. As such, the date seems more of a retail opportunity or a romantic construct than a celebration of a Christian saint.
So who was St Valentine? Historically there have been several Valentines, and very little evidence as to which is the saint remembered in this particular festival. One legend suggests that Valentine was a priest who defied the ban on weddings imposed by the Roman emperor Claudius II who was worried that marriage and family life were discouraging men from entering the army, and that he was executed for this defiance. He performed weddings in secret and, as a token to remind couples of their vows and of God’s love, Valentine is supposed to have given the couples little parchment hearts. An older legend recorded in the Lives of Saints collected by mediaeval monks, identifies Valentine as a priest who refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. When he was placed under house arrest with a Roman judge, he made friends with his gaoler and told him about Christ leading pagans out of spiritual darkness into the light of truth and salvation. The judge demanded proof and promised that if Valentine could cure his daughter of blindness, he and his family would convert to Christianity. According to the story, Valentine placed his hands over the girl’s eyes and prayed to Christ the True Light to enlighten her; the girl’s sight was restored and the family were baptised. However, both Valentine and the judge’s family were subsequently put to death for this act. A version of the legend says that before his execution Valentine sent a letter to the judge’s daughter, signed ‘from your Valentine’.
The legends perhaps show how St Valentine’s Day came to be associated with lovers, heart cards and secret messages of love. But can we as Christians today take anything from these stories? I think we can:
Valentine was firm in his faith in the face of persecution. He could have escaped prison and execution by conforming to the social, political and belief values of the day, but he chose not to. The form of challenges we face today are different, but we still have to be alert to them and ask ourselves what are the values and issues that compromise our faith and how we will stand up to them in the name of Christ.
Valentine recognised situations of need in front of him, and acted for the wellbeing of those people, without counting the possible cost to himself. This is agape – the godly, generous love called to serve others. As we are blessed by this love from God, we are empowered to serve others without consideration of benefit to ourselves. It doesn’t matter who we are, what skills or status we have or what we give to others, if it does not come from this God-love (1 Corinthans 13). Digging down into the motivations for our choices and actions can be a salutory business.
Valentine took the opportunities presented to him to build relationship and through this to share his faith in God with others. The Church of England has identified ‘life events’ – the significant moments in people’s life story such as baptisms, weddings and funerals – as ideal moments to communicate God’s love and welcome in the Gospel news, and encourages Christian communities to share in this building of relationship. Perhaps we can follow Valentine’s example of a simple gift reminder of God’s love at key moments and anniversaries.
We may be less attracted by the thought of spreading the Gospel from a prison cell, though inspiring stories today of Christians under house arrest in China and in the Middle East who have converted their guards to Christianity. But house arrest was the front line where Valentine found himself. Our front lines may look different: a letter of encouragement in Covid isolation, a conversation over the garden wall, a discussion on an ethical decision at work … Being on the front line does not mean ‘doorstepping’ people with the Gospel, but rather being open to the opportunities God presents. In the legend it was the judge’s demand that gave Valentine the chance to respond and so bear witness through Christ’s healing act.
So let’s celebrate St Valentine and use this festival to thank God for his overwhelming love for us: a love demonstrated in his faithfulness and in the sacrificial gift of his Son who called us to love one another as he loves us. This is a day when we can recognise the cost of belonging to God and celebrate it, remembering that God has blessed us with his love long before we have come to love him (1 John 4:19) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:38) – and that is a love message worth passing on to everyone.
Guest post from Lucy Gildersleeves
image found on Google, presumed free of copyright