The Real St. Valentine
by Loren Seibold | 14 February 2018 |
It is perhaps unfortunate that many of us know holidays more for their cultural accoutrements than for their original meaning.
Take Valentine’s Day which, when I was a child, was about little more than decorating a shoebox to hold silly little cards from other school children—children to whom we had to give cards whether we loved them or not—and for eating pastel heart-shaped nuggets of sugary chalk with vaguely romantic abbreviations on them.
It was a while before I learned that there was a saint attached to the day, and decades before I was curious enough to find out anything about him. As it turns out, there isn’t all that much to find out. Saint Valentine has far more power as a myth than he did as a real person—if he ever was one.
An old witticism (of uncertain origin, but I credit poet Rupert Brooke) says that history doesn’t repeat itself, but historians repeat one another. Saint Valentine has repetitious historians (endless martyrologies and hagiographies) to thank for having his own holiday, though almost nothing is known about Valentine besides his name. Pope Gelasius I described him as one of those “… whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
But that didn’t stop the Roman Catholics, who invented the extraordinary concept of churchmen taking upon themselves the authority to tell God what the truth about Him is, from officially declaring (in 496 A.D) that Valentine was a genuine saint, whose feast day was February 14.
(This was, of course, long before the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists became the highest authority of God on earth.)
This is a nice story, and I hope it’s true. Anyone who heals a child, by means spiritual or otherwise, is a hero in my book.
I also like the part about releasing the unjustly imprisoned.
What Valentine is a little better known for (and which may account for why his feast evolved into a celebration of romance), is secretly performing marriage ceremonies for Christian couples, particularly soldiers who were forbidden to marry their sweethearts while they were serving in the military.
I wish this were true, too, although this detail doesn’t appear in print until 1493 (in the Nuremberg Chronicle, an early illustrated history of the world covering creation to the final judgment), which means that it probably isn’t.
Still, it was a sweet story, and it had enough weight that in Victorian times Valentine’s feast day spawned a romantic holiday, one that we still celebrate today, and which is encouraged by retailers of all things mushy and sentimental and fattening.
Of course, the same Christians who hated Christmas hated Valentine’s Day, and for the same reasons. They thought that Valentine’s Day was a Christian substitution for an earlier, sexier pagan holiday, namely Lupercalia, which also fell in February. Valentine’s Day might have been a moral improvement on pagan orgies, but it still just seemed like too darn much fun, and they were having none of it.
But back to Valentine himself: on February 14, 278 AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, the possibly-mythical Valentine was beheaded. Some versions of the story say Claudius II had become acquainted with and taken a liking to Valentine, but then turned hostile when he realized Valentine was trying to proselytize him.
Some people really hate being witnessed to.
Though I would kindly suggest you just ignore the Jehovah’s Witnesses who ring your doorbell, not cut their heads off.
Alas, Valentine’s story had one final, disappointing chapter. In 1969, a few years after Vatican II, the Roman Catholics (still thinking, apparently, that they were the highest authority of God on earth) removed Valentine from their list of top-tier saints. After all those years of people praying to him, and despite his mortal remains still said to be residing in at least half a dozen churches, The Church said there just wasn’t enough known about Valentine. He wasn’t erased or banned, but he no longer ranked on the official roster.
Poor Valentine! To be demoted after so many centuries! It’s especially unfortunate in that Valentine had brand recognition his brother saints must have envied. And who can deny that he lived a mythical life worthy of mythical emulation? We all should be making children’s lives better. And as for love, romantic or otherwise, well, there’s just never enough of it around. Religions nowadays seem to be known more for their restrictions on who can love one another, than for doing much loving themselves.
So God bless St. Valentine, who needn’t actually have existed in order to be an encouragement and a role model. I know Christians who undeniably do exist, of whom there is less good to be said.
Loren Seibold is a pastor, and the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.