Monday, February 14, 2011

Solving the Mystery of St. Valentine

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet
And so are you!

Today is Valentine's Day, dedicated to showing the loved ones in your life how much you care for them. Like many feasts or holy days of the Church, the origin of St. Valentine's Day or who St. Valentine was has been obscured by a secularized version of the holiday devoted to greeting cards, chocolate, roses and romantic love.

Let's rediscover the original purpose of this feast day. Who is St. Valentine and how did his feast day become associated with displays of romantic love?

Multiple saints share the name of Valentine and three of them it seems share the feast day of February 14th. One of them is St. Valentine of Rome. The details of his life have been blurred by time, but what we know is that he was a priest during the early Christian persecutions probably around the end of the second century, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Some stories that have survived are that he was imprisoned by the emperor for declaring his faith in Jesus Christ and denouncing paganism, while in prison he ministered to those imprisoned and even helped bring the jailer to conversion when he healed the jailer's blind daughter. One thing we know for certain about St. Valentine of Rome is that he was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ. On Febrary 14th, he was beaten then beheaded on order of the emperor outside the Flaminian Gate of Rome.

Another St. Valentine who is associated with the feast day of February 14th is St. Valentine of Terni. St. Valentine of Terni was a bishop who was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded during the reign of the Emperor Aurelius, around A.D. 175. It seems he was murdered in secret at night to avoid angering the people of Terni to whom this bishop was beloved.

A third St. Valentine is attributed to this feast day, but even less is known about him. He was martyred along with his companions in Africa in the early centuries of the Church.

Do you see a pattern here? All three of the St. Valentines associated with today's feast day are martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ. So how did the celebration of this holy day come to be associated with romantic love? Again, history is not quite clear, but some possibilities arise. One story of St. Valentine of Rome is that he was initially arrested for performing the sacraments, specifically presiding over marriages, which was illegal at that time in Rome. So over time the link between St. Valentine and love and marriage could have originated from that. Another possibility is that some historians claim that there was a pagan celebration on February 15th where boys would draw girls names in honor of a Roman fertility goddess and to dissuade people from this the Church began a practice of having people draw the names of saints on the day before, which just happens to be St. Valentine's Day. So it is possible that there was an early connection between St. Valentine's Day and the drawing of names by boys and girls.

What is more clear in history is that by the time of the Renaissance St. Valentine had become associated with romantic love in popular culture. In the 15th century, Charles, Duke of Orleans wrote a letter to his wife while he was imprisioned in the Tower of London and in this letter he calls her, "Ma tres doulce Valentinée", My very sweet Valentine. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, written at the turn of the 17th century, Ophelia mentions Valentine's Day linking it to romantic love:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine. - Act IV scene v

By the early 19th century, the tradition of sending handmade greeting cards to your beloved on Valentine's Day had arisen. Since this time, the celebration of St. Valentine's Day has become consumed with showing others how much we care for them, usually by material means. Many people feel pressured to make a grand gesture of love because it is what is expected of them.

Today, while we may still celebrate the feast day, St. Valentine is no longer on the universal calendar of saint feast days. Universally, February 14th celebrates the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brothers, born around A.D. 825 who spent their lives evangelizing the people of Eastern Europe. They are considered the Patrons of the Unity of the Eastern and Western Churches. While we spend today (and hopefully everyday) showing our loved ones how much we care for them, let us also take some time to remember St. Valentine of Rome, St. Valentine of Terni, St. Valentine of Africa and Sts. Cyril and Methodius:

God, thank you for the gift of your grace in the sacraments and through this grace give us the strength and courage to stand for you even to the point of death.We also pray for further unification of the East and West Church so that the Church may once again breathe with both lungs.
St. Valentine, pray for us.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius, pray for us.

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