Hiding just behind many of the holidays on our calendars are the lives of ancient followers of Jesus. We toss their names around without the faintest idea of how they lived, what they sacrificed, and how their faith sent shockwaves through time. This year, we’re doing something about that. The Holy Behind the Holiday is an ongoing series looking back at some prominent figures from the history of the Church and what their lives can still teach us today.
If you thought Valentine’s Day has always been about cuddly teddy bears, boxes of chocolate, and paper hearts… boy, do I have a story for you. Full disclosure: it’s gonna get bloody.
The name we associate with February 14th, overpriced flower arrangements, and those atrocious tastes-like-chalk heart candies once belonged to an actual dude. He went by the name Valentine—and his story is way more inspiring than naked babies with wings holding archery practice (that’s weird, right?).
Valentine lived in the mid-200s AD, just 150 years or so after the resurrection of Christ. At this point in history, the Church was nothing near the institution that it is now. It did not hold autonomy or enjoy the safety of religious freedom—in fact, it was quite the opposite. Seeing their power dissipating, the Roman Emperors, who ruled much of the known world at that time, actively sought to snuff out the faith through horrendous persecutions.
Think feeding-Christians-to-lions stuff. Not fun.
Because Valentine lived so long ago and was not written extensively about (like Jesus was, for example), much of his life is fuzzy. We know he was a clergyman in Italy, possibly a bishop, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. And we know he met a grisly end because of his faith (gory details to follow; hold your horses). Everything else may contain embellishments as his legend grew.
As follows is the story we’re left with.
As a clergyman, Valentine spoke often and openly of the love of God. This got him in trouble with the powers that be. One legend says that Emperor Claudius, wanting to more easily conscript and recruit soldiers for his Roman legions, tried to weaken family bonds by forbidding marriage. Valentine, understanding marriage as a gift from God, ignored this edict and carried on marrying young couples in secret. His flouting of this rule led to his arrest.
Another legend says that, while under arrest, Valentine was kept in the home of a Roman judge named Asterius. Despite the danger, Asterius was intrigued by Valentine’s countercultural decisions and faith. He often engaged him in conversation and found his perspectives refreshing. But he wasn’t quite sure Valentine was right. One night, he put Valentine’s faith to the test.
Bringing his blind daughter into the room, Asterius asked Valentine to pray for her. If God was real, he wanted to see proof. Valentine laid his hands on the girl’s eyes and asked God to restore her sight. When he finished, the young girl looked around the room, dumbstruck. For the first time in her life, she could see.
Asterius converted on the spot. At Valentine’s prompting, he destroyed all the Roman idols in his home and was baptized. 44 other members of his household—extended family and servants—also came to faith through the miracle and were baptized that same night.
With his life turned upside down, Asterius set Valentine and all the other Christians in his custody free. But Valentine didn’t stay out of trouble for long.
He was arrested a second time for his devotion to Christ, this time finding himself shipped to Rome to face the enraged Emperor himself. At first, Emperor Claudius was taken with Valentine, much like Judge Asterius. But when Valentine tried to convince Claudius to leave the pagan faith of Rome in favor of serving Jesus, the discussions ended.
Claudius threatened Valentine and demanded he renounce his faith. Valentine refused, and the Emperor had him beaten. When that didn’t kill Valentine, the Emperor ordered him to be beheaded.
Valentine was killed—at the hands of the Emperor’s executioners—on February 14th, about 270 AD, along the ancient Roman Road called the Flaminian Way.
If you’re confused about how any of this connects to pink heart balloons, greeting cards, and romance… we’re getting there.
Legend says that Valentine, in order to encourage the persecuted and jailed Christians he often encountered—and to remind them that love was their greatest calling—would pass out paper hearts he had cut from spare parchment. If you can believe the timing, some even say that one of those hearts arrived at the home of the newly healed jailer’s daughter on the date of his execution. It was signed, simply, “Your Valentine.”
Valentine was martyred for refusing to renounce the love that had so changed his life, the love that he saw as the great hope for the world. Some 250 years later, the Church set the day of his death, February 14th, aside as a feast day in his honor.
The rest is history. And a lot of Hallmark.
In the millennia since his life, the celebrations and traditions around Valentine’s Day have gone through countless iterations. Only one sure thing remains: the love that so gripped Valentine, that God would leave his place of glory to come to earth for our sake, is still gripping hearts.
For me, Valentine’s story is a reminder to focus on the most important thing. In a culture where our differences are more at the forefront than our similarities, even (or especially) among the people of God, Valentine’s boldness screams across the generations: go and love others. Full stop.
If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, Church history and stories like Valentine’s are your spiritual 23andMe. It’s your family tree, your lineage, your ancestry. The same devotion, faithfulness, and capacity to love flow through your veins. It’s your birthright. What better time to claim it?
This February, choosing to show love to someone else—especially if they don’t deserve it—is the best way to honor the legacy of a man willing to die for the love that changed his life. When you do that, you reflect a sacrificial love of even greater significance: that of Jesus himself.
Turns out, when we love, all the other details of life tend to come together. Plus, Jesus made it pretty clear: He is expecting no less from us.
“This is my commandment, that you love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
I, for one, am thankful to have Valentine as an example (even if his candy hearts are gross).
Disclaimer: This article is 100% human-generated.
Stories of the Saints, Carey Wallace, Workman Publishing, 2018.
On this Day: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs and Heroes, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson, 1997.