St. Valentine’s Day.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 February

As you should know, saints days are usually the day a saint died.

In Roman Catholic thinking, this’d be the day the Christian actually became a saint, ’cause now there’s no chance whatsoever of them ever quitting Jesus—why would you, now that you’ve been with him in heaven?—so their sainthood is absolutely a done deal. Whereas those of us on earth: Meh. You’re Christian now; we don’t yet know how well you’ll hold up when the poo-poo really hits the fan. ’Cause some of those people back in Roman Empire times who could’ve been martyred saints, as soon as the Romans even threatened to smack ’em around a little, they quickly denounced Jesus and promised to worship the Emperor. So much for their sainthood.

So… how well might you hold up under persecution? Heck, in a country where Christians don’t even get persecuted (except in their own minds), how well might you hold up even when you’re simply suffering? ’Cause plenty of people seem to have a rather low breaking point. Parents die?—even though everybody’s parents die?—quit Jesus. Not cured of whatever ailment you really wanna be cured of?—quit Jesus. Don’t get that job you were convinced God was gonna grant you?—quit Jesus. One of the pastors quietly suggested next Sunday you might experiment with underarm deodorant?—quit Jesus. If these triggers are starting to sound stupid… well, some people get triggered by the pettiest things. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” Mt 16.24 doesn’t appeal to a culture which denies itself nothing.

But I digress, ’cause today I’m gonna write about the martyr St. Valentine.

Of course the tricky part is which one. There have been many Christians named Valentinus, and some of them lived and died for Jesus, and back in antiquity some bishop decided to give one of them his very own feast day. In the west, bishop Gelasius 1 of Rome fixed it on 14 February. But which Valentinus is this day about? Well, we don’t know.

Well we don’t. This is one of those facts that’s been lost in antiquity. We don’t know anything about St. Valentine. Jesus does, ’cause Valentinus is one of his. That, I suppose, is what counts most.

We know of five ancient Christian martyrs with the name Valentinus. Three in particular, but really any of the five—or in fact none of them—could be the guy with the feast day. There’s no saying for certain. I don’t care which historian you’ve read who claims, “Oh it’s definitely this Valentinus”—it’s not definite at all. We don’t know. Unless some archaeologist finally gets hold of a document in which some bishop first proclaims a St. Valentine’s Day, we’re not gonna know. Some things in the universe are just gonna remain unknowns. Deal with it.

The five Valentinuses are:

  1. A presbyter who served in Rome, buried on the Flaminian Way in the late 200s. Orthodox Christians observe his feast day on 6 July.
  2. A bishop of Interamna (now Terni, in central Italy), killed during a trip to Rome in the year 269. The church of Terni claims this Valentinus died on 14 February, and he’s the St. Valentine… but of course they would. Orthodox Christians observe his feast day on 30 July.
  3. A member of a missionary team to north Africa (today’s Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya), who were all killed at once, and that’s everything we know about him.
  4. A bishop of Passau, who later became a hermit in northern Italy, and died in 475.
  5. A bishop of Genoa, who died in 295.

St. Valentine’s Day was part of the official Roman calendar till 1955, when Pope Pius 12 decided to consolidate a bunch of saints. Of course by then it was already part of popular culture. Medieval Christians had decided St. Valentine, whoever he was, was the patron saint of romantic love, and invented a few legends about how he secretly performed Christian weddings for couples, enraging the emperor, who had him killed for that, not for Jesus. Greeting card manufacturers of course spread the story he used to cut heart-shaped pieces of parchment and give them to other persecuted Christians to remind them of God’s love; which is also likely bogus, but it gives schoolchildren something nice to write about in their St. Valentine’s Day essays.

A celebration of romantic love.

Pagans are fond of claiming Christians swiped their holidays, and a few of them like to claim St. Valentine’s Day is a holiday invented to replace the Roman purification festival of Lupercalia. The Luperci priests sacrificed a goat and a dog, made thongs out of their skins, got naked and put on the thongs, then ran counter-clockwise round the Palatine Hill. Members of the public might join in the run with their own homemade thongs. Women would stretch out their hands so the priests might slap them along their run; they believed this would make the barren pregnant, and make the pregnant have easier childbirth.

Yep, Valentine’s Day doesn’t look at all like Lupercalia. Nothing in there about romantic love; it was ritual purification and fertility. I’m pretty sure someone out there has a Valentine’s Day fun run, and maybe they even started it with Lupercalia in mind—but nobody but historians is gonna see the connection.

Because for people nowadays, Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love. It’s about dating your spouse or significant other. It’s about giving them gifts—and merchants will nudge you towards the more expensive ones, like diamonds. (Which are an utter waste of money, folks; don’t buy diamonds. Plenty of shiny rocks are far cheaper.)

Ain’t nothing wrong with romantic love. But as I have to remind Christians from time to time, it’s not the sort of love God is, so don’t go mixing it up; that’s gross. We’re supposed to love God, not love-love God, ya pervs. Any Christian band who confounds the two, and wants to love Jesus with all their mouth, has serious unresolved issues; stop enabling them by buying their albums.

As for honoring St. Valentine… well, none of this activity has anything to do with him, and like I said we don’t even know which St. Valentine we’re honoring. Really it’s just a name for a day. Which is kinda sad; the actual Valentinus was probably someone worth honoring! But maybe Pius 12 was right, and we oughta just remember these folks en masse on All Saints Day. And always remember to pray for those Christians who still live under actual persecution.