“Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward…The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.” – Henry David Thoreau
“We must obey God rather than men. ” – The Apostle Peter
Valentine’s Day is just one of those holidays that forces you to respond in some way. It isn’t like St. Patrick’s Day or Memorial Day. It cannot and will not be ignored. For instance, if you are in a relationship, the day is gushy and looks like a cheesy Hallmark card. On the other hand, if you are not in a relationship, the day becomes “Singles Awareness Day,” and you spend the day feeling lonely and trying to justify your singleness. And the social media sites explode with generic posts like, “You shouldn’t need an excuse to show someone else you love them,” or, “I love you every day of the year, not just on Valentine’s Day.” And yet, no matter how many times phrases like those get posted and shared, the one doing the posting feels clever and good and all kinds of proud that he (or she) is better than everyone else who has chosen to celebrate this day in any kind of traditional manner. But this isn’t a post about the Americanized/Westernized Valentine’s Day.
This is about St. Valentine, martyr and political agitator.
There are many stories about this particular saint, and it is actually unclear who we are actually talking about here (there are at least three Valentines in the early martyrologies). But there are common threads that seem quite historically sound running through the various legends. Under the reign of Claudius II, there was a clergyman named Valentine. Claudius prohibited the marriage of young people, because of his theory that unmarried men were more likely to join the military and become better fighters.
It was both an act of love for his neighbor and an act of defiance in the face of the Empire. He was telling Caesar that the Empire could have what it would have, but the Church belongs to God.
Once discovered and caught, Valentine was condemned as a political agitator and criminal of the state, and sentenced to a three-part execution: beating, stoning, and beheading. This was carried out on February 14th, 270 C.E., thus the date of the romantic festivities.
As a clergyman, it is likely that Valentine never married. He was not obsessed with romance, nor was his motivating factor a “biblical view of marriage” or romantic love. His actions were, at their core, theologically motivated political statements. Caesar could take taxes, but he had no right to define the life of the church.
Single Christians often find the need to justify their own existence on the so-called “day of love” by saying cheesy things like, “The only man I need is Jesus,” or “Jesus never got married, so why do I need to?” Now, these things are true, and the applications are justified, but why do we feel the need to romanticize the day? We, singles and couples alike, “sugar-coat,” if you will, the death of a good man. Why?
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I’m a newly wed, and today will include breakfast in bed, flowers, chocolates, a cheesy teddy bear, a gushy card, all manners of cliche gifts, and other celebratory festivities, but that isn’t the point. The point is not to guilt trip those who are celebrating romance on this day, but to remind us (myself included) that Saint Valentine should be remember for more than just candy hearts and cheesy cards. He was a man who was willing to suffer anything and everything for what he believed in: the Body of Christ. In this way, he falls in line with some of the greatest men of the faith, from modern martyrs to the Apostles themselves.
What can we learn from this?
First, I think we can learn that there is a greater good than marriage: devotion to Christ. What makes Valentine’s story so great is not that he risked his life for the marriage of others, but that he risked his life to serve Christ and His Body, even when faced with torture and execution. Had Claudius forbade baptism, Valentine would have baptized the masses. If Claudius had forbade worship, Valentine’s voice would echo through the halls of cathedrals in praise of God. If Claudius had forbade evangelism, Valentine would have continued preaching the gospel, even when faced with the most heinous threats. After all, is it not a blessing to share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13; Philippians 3:10)?
Second, with election season upon us, the church is nearing a state of chaotic uproar and turmoil. We are so scared of who is going to be elected that we are willing to pour millions into campaigns and shout hatred from the right to the left, and vice versa. We are so scared of losing our “rights” that the church is becoming more of a political party than an organic community centered around the gospel. But no matter what happens, the church is no stranger to persecution and state-issued conflict. The Body of Christ is used to it by now, and it knows how to act in the face of opposition. We continue to serve Christ and accept the undeserved wrath of the ill-mannered government, and we do so with humility and love.
So, couples, there is nothing wrong with celebrating love (like I said, I fully intend to). But there is something far greater to remember: that we are part of the church. We are a persecuted family, in opposition to the culture, united by the Spirit for the glory of God, redeemed by the Son, chosen by the Father. No matter what comes our way, we have each other.
And singles, this is not a day for silly attempts at self-justification, nor is it a day to become “aware” of your singleness. After all, today isn’t about you. It’s about the church. You don’t need to find “the one,” because the One has found His Bride, the Church. You don’t need to find someone to die for. You are part of the family of God, and each and every one of us would die for you.
Happy Valentine’s Day!