We all know Valentine’s Day as a day of Hallmark cards, hearts, flowers, and cupids. Sometimes we catch a faint echo of a saint buried deep in the fluffy trappings of this holiday but have long since lost any sense of what, if any, the connection between the two might be. If there is a real St. Valentine, who was he and where is he? Take a look at the current feast in the Catholic calendar for February 14 and you’ll find Saints Cyril and Methodius, 9th century bishops with a ministry to the Slavic people of Eastern Europe. Keep digging, though, and you will find references to no less than three 3rd-century martyrs of the name Valentine associated with February 14 (although stories of two of them may actually refer to one person). And it is not explicit which one was to be venerated when the feast was installed in the 5th century. In part because of the legendary nature of the saint, the official Catholic feast was removed from the General Calendar in 1969.
That’s a tricky one, too. Some claim that there is a root in an ancient pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia, which was celebrated February 13-15. Others say that it began with the poetry of Chaucer, spurred on by the medieval belief that birds mated on February 14. Tokens and notes of love were commonplace in the Middle Ages, carried to the New World in the 1700s, transformed into the Victorian hearts, lace, and cupids in the 19th century, and pushed forward through the 20th century into a mass market of secular sentiments of all sorts.
Everything! It may not be the love we recognize from Valentine cards but a common thread of the radical love we, as Christians, are called to runs through all the stories surrounding St. Valentine. Whether a courageous priest who dared to marry soldiers at a time when the Roman emperor decreed that men must remain single to fight successfully; or a jailed bishop who healed the blindness of his jailor’s daughter and converted his Roman captors, finally losing his life when he dared to try to convert the emperor himself; or a priest martyred in Africa with a number of companions—we see a love that is selfless, compassionate, bold, trusting, and faithful. It is unlikely that we will be called to the same path of martyrdom but we are asked each day to make choices as disciples of Christ, guided by the same love that lifted up St. Valentine. Take some time this Valentine’s Day to think about what that means in your life and in your relationships. And pray to St. Valentine for the courage and commitment to live your life in love and service. Just because he’s not on the calendar doesn’t mean he wasn’t real!
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