Why would a Christian priest in Rome in the 3rd century A.D. be imprisoned, tortured and threatened with death just for standing up for marriage, secretly marrying soldiers to their brides? When we think of Valentine’s Day today, we think of romance, whether serious or trite, but we rarely think of the fact that February 14 denotes the day (in 269 AD) when Valentine (his last name) was beheaded for his faith!
Claudius II was emperor of Rome from 268 to 270 A.D., and though he was tolerant in some ways, believers were persecuted under his reign. Since the Roman Empire was being invaded by Goths and the Plague of Cyprian (possibly smallpox) was killing up to 5,000 a day, the army was in desperate need of soldiers. With such power in his hands, Claudius II decided to ban marriage in the military so that soldiers would be more loyal to the Emperor, having no loyalties at home. Loyalty in that day meant worship of the Roman gods by placing a pinch of incense on the fire before the statues of their images. Those who refused were “unpatriotic” and killed. Christians were specifically targetted because they regularly refused to worship anyone but Jesus Christ.
During the first three centueris of Christianity, ten major persecutions have been documented. The government had believers killed by lions in the Coliseum for sport and put on stakes and set on fire to light the sporting event at night. Christians were also boiled alive, their tongues cut out, and treated as the lowest of society. So it was that Valentine found himself in opposition with the new “law” by the Emperor in a time of such persecution. Would he submit and obey such a command though it violated the Word of God? When many young soldiers, about to go off to war or coming home, wanted to get married, they came to him secretly. He would marry them and be willing to face the consequences, which he did.
When is it proper to disobey a civil law? The Word of God is clear on this matter. If civil laws allow evil, or even promote it, believers have no right to randomly disobey the law since it is not requiring them to disobey God. When a civil law allows or even promotes evil, we are to pray, serve and love our enemies, expecting God to give us opportunities where we might work to change the law in the culture that surrounds us. However, when the civil law commands us to disobey God, we must, with a submissive attitude, obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Like the Israelite women who gave birth secretly at the time of Moses, or the first century believers who were comanded by civil magistrates to cease from preaching the gospel, our focus should remain on obeying God. Our focus should never be on disobedience of a civil law, but rather on obeying God, yet being willing to face the consequences.
Valentine was justified according to the Scriptures to defy the order of Emperor Claudius II when he demanded that he worship idols. He was also justified in performing marriage ceremonies when commanded to refrain. As expected, he was arrested, put in prison, beaten with clubs, tortured and condemned to death. While in jail, his jailer, Asterius, asked Valentine to pray for his blind daughter and she was miraculously healed. The jailer was converted and baptized, along with others. He sent a note to the jailer’s daughter and signed it “from your Valentine.” Legend has it that he sent notes to his congregation telling them to love their enemies, signing them in the same way.
When Valentine was beheaded on February 14, 269 AD, he entered that hall of heroes who have died for the sake of the gospel of Christ and the Word of God. He died spreading God’s love in spite of the hatred he had received. It was a divine demonstration of love in the face of persecution that caused history to associate Valentine with God’s love. It was Pope Gelasius who designated February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day in 496 A.D. When rehearsing the original story of what has become Valentine’s Day, we can undersatnd better how it was truly a “holy day” to honor one who gave his life for true love as defined in God’s Word; “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
The challenge was that Pope Gelasius attempted to get people’s attention away from the Feast of Lupercalia. Held on the “ides of February” (the 15th), it was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture but was also a fertility festival, trivializing love as only sensual desires of the flesh. As often takes place, the people merely merged the two dates together and came up with a new Saint Valentine’s Day but with the emphasis on the sensual rather than the heroic deeds of Valentine and biblical love.
One thing that Valentine did remained. The idea of sending notes with the phrase “from your valentine” was steadily practiced. By the 1800’s in England, printed cards took the place of personal notes, and phrases of all kinds were chosen to express one’s love to another. Valentine’s Day did not have any official beginning in America until about 1863 during the Civil War. It has since become the number two holiday for greeting cards (1 billion each year compared to 2.6 billion at Christmas.)
And what about Cupid and the fat little baby that shoots arrows through hearts? In Roman mythology, Cupid was the son of the goddess of love, Venus. He is called eros in Greek. The word eros means physical love and is only to be between a married man and his wife. Phileo love is the one used between brothers and sisters in a family or the family of God, and agape is God’s love that never ends and gives without thought of return.
So what lessons can we learn from Plymouth today? When the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of Plymouth in 1620, they came with the idea of biblical love and sacrifice. Half their number died the first winter, and they were faced with remarrying in order to keep the colony alive. Individuals made commitments to love and allowed emotions to follow. In essence they demonstrated being someone’s Valentine after the example of biblical love rather than seeking emotional affection alone. It is this example of biblical love and sacrifice we need again today and so we should retell the real story of Valentine to our children and grandchildren so they may seek the right kind of relationships in their future marriages and homes. May we as couples and individuals learn to live in agape love as our primary motive for service to God and our neighbors!