Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:18
In a recent op-ed piece in The Calgary Herald, Licia Corbella spoke eloquently about the way Christmas has been desacralized in contemporary culture, replaced by the admittedly colourful Santa Claus at the expense of Christ. The eradication of the non-secular from public holidays is not confined to Christmas of course (the Easter bunny immediately comes to mind). It is not surprising to see society struggling to have its cake and eat it too — to benefit from the power of monumental holidays, but also to exploit them through secular celebrations.
While Easter and Christmas are more often noted as sacred events that have been sidelined by modern trends, we often forget that Valentine’s Day is similarly connected to a holy past. But at least with this event the confusion is understandable. After all, even the Catholic Church’s own records are unclear on who or even how many St. Valentines there may have been, or what they may have done in their glorious lives. At least three St. Valentines are identified with the 14th of February, one of whom was a priest in Rome and the other a bishop from what is today Terni in Italy. A third is said to have disappeared in Africa.
Nevertheless, the story of St. Valentine is most closely associated with the Priest who was martyred in 269 AD for marrying Christian couples. Although imprisoned by Claudius II, it’s said that the Emperor came to like the priest, until the latter tried to convert him. After this Valentine was beaten and eventually beheaded, before being buried on the Flaminian Way in Rome. Perhaps the most moving part of the story is that St. Valentine fell in love with his jailor’s blind daughter and cured her of her blindness before he was taken away to his death. He reputedly sent her a note urging her to maintain her faith in God, and signed it: “from your Valentine.”
Although this was the first Valentine’s Day card, for literature buffs it is probably worth noting that the 14th of February became associated with love letters and passion more generally through the efforts of Geoffrey Chaucer in the Middle Ages. In his Parliament of Foules Chaucer observes that “on seynt Volantynys day”, every bird comes together to choose their mate.
However the event has evolved, where virtually every schoolchild prepares cards for their parents, and teenagers agonize over the lack of a declaration of undying love (anonymous or otherwise), it is important to remember the sacred at its heart. Not just so that we may remember a worthy saint, but also because the message is the importance of love. By connecting Valentine’s Day to the Saint we are reminded of the love we should strive to emulate — one that is sacred, selfless, divine. Reason enough, one would think, for a card or two.
This article originally appeared in The Carillon, a publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary.