Who is St. Valentine?

Contributing Writer
Pastor Mark Swanson
First Lutheran Church

Valentine’s’ Day is February 14. But you already know that. What we don’t know is that St. Valentine, for whom the holiday is named, could have been one, two, or three different people. Like nearly all those old saints, when facts are scarce, legends abound. So, to make writing and talking about Valentine easier, I will make the brazen assumption that he (assuming Valentine was male) was one person, a saint who lived back in the 3rd century (late 200’s AD), when the Romans were still in power. According to one legend, the Romans had forbidden marriage among soldiers, believing that unwed soldiers made for better fighters. But Valentine, it is said, kept on performing marriages for soldiers, resulting in his execution by Roman authorities. Another legend says that Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians escape the harsh Roman prisons (Christianity was outlawed at the time) and was himself captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. During his imprisonment, Valentine fell in love with a girl who visited him and, before his death, sent her messages of love. And from that old story, a tradition was born.

It’s anyone’s guess whether any of this is true, but it makes a good excuse to send a card to the one you love. And today, when any sign of love is warmly welcome, I say we should stuff the mailbox with all the sweet notes we can get our hands on. Why should loving be limited to a single day? And why should it be merely romanticized? Isn’t love deeper than that? If I’m not mistaken, another saint once suggested that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Cor. 13:4-7).”

The same saint dared to suggest that everything else passes away, but love is eternal; not the romantic kind that comes and goes, but the kind of love that is self-sacrificing and even dies for the sake of others. If there is any truth to those old Valentine stories, it might be that his legend continues to this day; not because he mailed out cards, but because he gave his life in service to the weak and powerless and everyone needing a large measure of love in a hate-filled world.

If there never was a Valentine, even if he is only a character created by time and imagination, God has still used an old tale for God’s purposes, to save us from our spitefulness toward one another. An old love story is turned into God’s story of love for God’s people, his self-giving on a cross, and his loving mercy that never ends. An old legend has become the means to speak the truth of God’s passion for his people, and we have become characters written into the story by the hand of our Lord. So, when the card is received in the mail, the flowers left on the doorstep, and the ring placed on the finger, perhaps more than our eyes will be opened in delight. Maybe, at last, we will realize that the Lord is pouring into our hearts the compassionate forgiveness that transforms us into the image of the one who gave himself away in love. Then an old Valentine story will be made real as the love of Christ comes alive in us.

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