This past Sunday was Valentine’s Day. So it is only appropriate that we commemorate Valentine as our saint this week. The St. Valentine of choice this week is he who died in AD 270.
He was a martyr during the reign of the Emperor Quintillus (I think; my history books aren’t at hand to confirm Quintillus’ brief reign). During the third century, Christians underwent persecution on and off. Some emperors persecuted them heartily, others did little more than seize holy books and disallow gatherings for worship. The sporadic nature of Roman persecution of Christians was also such that the Christians were not usually persecuted universally but only in certain places and only at certain times and only for certain offenses.
These persecutions were sometimes because foreign, non-traditional, non-ethnic religious groups were an easy scapegoat (see Nero’s persecution in the 60’s). Sometimes they were because the Christians refused to burn incense to the emperor, claiming that since the emperor is but a man, he ought not to receive worship as a god. Another cause of persecution is the deep-rooted Roman belief in the pax deorum — the peace of the gods. Rome was successful because of divine favour. Not to worship or believe in the gods was to court disaster for the Roman people. Therefore, to prevent disaster, or to stop it (as in times of crisis such as the third century), those who did not worship the gods — “atheists” — were rooted out.
Valentine was a priest in Rome during a persecution. It is my understanding that he was brought before the magistrate and required to recant his Christian beliefs (a fairly simple action, “Recanto.”). He refused. He was commanded so to do multiple times, but held firm to his faith until the end. Since he refused to recant, he was then beaten with clubs, dragged through the City, and beheaded.
Why on earth do we go out on dates and give loved ones heart-shaped cards and chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day? It may be the leftovers of the Lupercalia, observed on February 15. I don’t see how a festival that consisted of men running about naked and hitting people with leather thongs, animal sacrifices, and religious solemnities becomes Valentine’s Day. It may simply be a rootless sort of “Spring thing”, since everyone is twitterpated in the Spring.
As far as Valentine is concerned, the legend (tradition?) is that he was forbidden to perform Christian marriages but refused, and kept on getting people married, so they killed him.
Although we are uncertain of all the details of his life, he was real. Remember that we are also uncertain about Quintillus’ life and reign. Times of upheaval and uncertainty make for incomplete, disjointed, and occasionally contradictory records. As well, since St. Valentine was but one of many martyrs (more than one of whom was named Valentine), and not as famous as some, we find ourselves unsure of many details.
The lesson from his life? To stand firm in the face of persecution. If you do so, you might have a popular holiday named after you.