Hope for Living: St. Valentine’s actual story points to sacrifice, not romance

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In our congregation we regularly observe saints days. We learn from their examples of how God provided for them, applying what we learn to our own lives of faith. This past week we celebrated one of the best known of all the saints: St. Valentine.

As we did it occurred to me that, in spite of our familiarity with St. Valentine, his legacy is misunderstood by our culture.

There is actually evidence in the Church’s history for two individuals named Valentine. The first was a Roman priest who was martyred around the year 269 B.C., and the second was a Roman bishop from Interamna (modern day Terni), who is also said to have been martyred in the year 269 B.C., while visiting Rome. The common features shared by these two Valentines suggest that there was probably only one Valentine, who was martyred, and whose remains became associated with these two different locations.

I say probably, because the other available bodies of evidence about the Church’s martyrs are contradictory when it comes to Valentine, and they contain information that is historically questionable. Included among these are the claims that Valentine secretly performed Christian marriages, and provided hearts cut from parchment as a reminder of the marriage vow and God’s love. Another says that he left a note for the child of his jailer that was written on a piece of irregularly shaped parchment. Both of these traditions provide a basis for aspects of Valentine’s Day as we know it today, as both contributed over time to the Feast of St. Valentine becoming associated with romantic love.

And that’s where the misunderstanding comes in, because the Feast of St. Valentine is not about romantic love, but martyrdom. In death St. Valentine bore witness to Jesus Christ, the risen Lord Who in love gave Himself into death on a cross to save us from our sins. Jesus says, in the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

That is what Jesus did — He laid down His life for us. The death of Jesus Christ is at the very center of the Church’s life, as it assures us of God’s forgiveness and expresses in a most profound way God’s love.

That love moves us to love others. As Jesus also said in John’s Gospel: “A new command I give to you, that you love one another: even as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

St. Valentine, whoever he was, died a martyr, which means he died bearing witness to God’s love for Him in Christ. That’s how we most appropriately celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. It’s how we correctly understand and pass on his legacy: In thankfulness for God’s love in Christ, we love one another.

The Rev. Dan O’Connor is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Greenfield. This weekly column is written by local clergy members.