I am pretty good about remembering my wife’s birthday and our anniversary. Christmas is hard to overlook. But Valentine’s Day always sneaks up on me. If you’re like me, your February 14th may involve a frantic stop at the flower shop to overpay for roses and chocolates.
The cynics among us like to claim that Hallmark invented these pop-up holidays to sell greeting cards. Our consumer culture undoubtedly pours a massive amount of gas on the Valentine’s Day fire. But is that all this is? Is there a bigger story at play here? (Hint: there is always a bigger story at play.)
This day we celebrate is rooted in the Roman Catholic Church calendar. People have been remembering February 14 as “St. Valentine’s Day” for 1,600 years. There are different versions of the historical St. Valentine’s story, but one likely goes like this.
The Valentine Story
It was AD 269.
The Roman governor Claudius was seeking a way to strengthen his army. He surmised that soldiers who had wives at home might not fight as bravely on the front lines for fear they would be killed and not return home to their family. Claudius, therefore, made marriage illegal for Roman soldiers. He believed loyalty to the state would supersede the natural desire to marry, raising up a generation of soldiers completely loyal to Rome with no side allegiance to wives and children.
He was wrong, of course. Many soldiers desired to marry in spite of his decree.
A young priest named Valentine held the firm conviction that marriage should not be denied by the state. He began secretly and illegally to perform marriage ceremonies, insisting that the law of God should always be obeyed, even if in conflict with the law of Caesar.
More and more Roman soldiers began to secretly fall in love and desire marriage. Word spread, and these soldiers sought out the rogue priest named Valentine who could perform the sacrament of marriage.
Valentine’s underground, illegal scheme was eventually uncovered. He was brought before Emperor Claudius and told to repent of his sin. He refused, believing he must be faithful to his true King, whom he claimed to be a resurrected Jewish rabbi named Jesus, over the “king” of Rome. He was immediately arrested and condemned to die as a traitor to the state—not unlike his Savior had been a few hundred years prior.
From his prison cell, Valentine wrote notes of encouragement to his family and friends. He stayed in touch with many of the couples he married by sending them letters from his dungeon. He signed each of his notes the same way: “—from your Valentine.”
On February 14, 270, Valentine was executed for treason, but not before making a mark on history for standing on the side of love.
And that is (possibly) the real story behind why florists and chocolatiers do so well for themselves in mid-February.
Telling the Story
It’s when we lose sight of the story behind things that they become trite and rote. We see this clearly with major holidays like Christmas and Easter, but we see it less clearly with the other happenings in our lives. There’s a story to tell our children about why we go to the church we do. Or why we live in the community we live in. Or why we meet Grandma for breakfast at Bob Evans on Saturday mornings.
Routines and traditions are just meaningful stories that have been hollowed out a bit. As a people of story, it becomes our great pleasure to retell and relive these stories of our family and faith.
So take a few minutes this month as your little ones scribble the names of each of their classmates on their SpongeBob and Star Wars Valentine’s cards to tell them a bigger story. Our stories remind us that people like Valentine learned to love the way he did because we share the same Father. Every good thing we have comes from a God who loves us—and this day is just another reminder that nothing can separate us from that love.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.