I did some research on Valentine’s Day for a sermon that I will share in this post. One way and another, the holiday is the remembrance of the martyrdom of St. Valentine in AD 270. But how did that morph into the holiday as we know it? Let’s start by noting that there were three notable martyrs at just about the same time that year. One of them was Saint Valentine. The problem, beginning not that long after the triple martyrdom, lay in lacking certainty about which of the three was actually Saint Valentine. Emperor Claudius II executed one of the men for converting his jailers to Christ. He executed another of the three men for helping convicted Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. He executed the third man for secretly performing unlawful wedding ceremonies. A word here: Claudius had decided that single men made better soldiers than married men. Subsequently, he passed a law that young men from the less ‘privileged’ portions of the population were not to marry until after they had served an acceptable term in the military – ‘acceptable’ being a matter to be determined case by case. Many young men were frantic about the prospect of being shipped off to war without the chance to marry. The Christian minister in question married them in secret ceremonies and paid with his life.
As time passed, the only name remembered from among the three martyrs of AD 270 was ‘Valentine’ and people from the home regions of each martyr wanted their guy to be the one remembered. Each of the three was claimed to be the true Valentine. In many quarters, the three were simply referred to together as ‘the valentini’ and remembered as a group rather than as individuals.
Much later (like a millennia) the official Feast Day celebrating the martyrdom of Saint Valentine was enshrined church wide. They chose the performer of forbidden wedding ceremonies as the true Valentine, leaving the other two as mere valentini. They did this not because they suddenly arrived at a more certain knowledge but because they were replacing a pagan fertility cult celebration already set in February- the Lupercalia. In the Lupercalia, for starters, goats were sacrificed to fertility gods/goddesses. Then, young men ran through the streets naked but for a thong made of a strip of the sacrificial goats hides with the genitals of the goat still attached and placed appropriately. Somewhere along the course, each young man hoped to meet a certain young woman. This, along with other practices, was thought to make the men more virile, the women more fertile and increase the next crop of babies for the given community. The church wanted a different picture of sexuality and an emphasis on God and the sacred covenant of marriage to take the place of the Lupercalia. Valentine, the performer of defiant marriages was the guy for the job and the essentials of the modern holiday were put in place – though our society has largely forgotten the emphasis on God.
For what it’s worth, modern scholarship has pretty much determined that the converter of Jailers was the actual Valentine after all but no one yet has started the crusade to revamp the holiday into something appropriate to that scenario.
I am uncertain how inspiring this particular bit of holiday history is. I suppose Hallmark and Whitman’s are more excited about it than most. But, whatever their methodology I will give the Medieval church their due. They did not forget those who gave their lives for the gospel and they strove to lead their society away from paganism and toward Christ. If I wish to find fault with the way they did it, I suppose I had better think up a better way and get on with implementing it! At any rate, I hope everyone had a great Valentine’s Day!
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church