No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:13-17, NRSV
This month we enter the season of the church year known as “Lent.” This name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten” or “lenchthen,” meaning “lengthen,” given to this season because of the lengthening of the days as Spring appears. Now observed as a forty day period before Easter, Lent’s roots go back to the first century church which observed a forty hour period in keeping with the forty hours Jesus’ body was in the tomb. This period was extended gradually over several centuries to the current rounded-off tithe of the days of the year.
Lent begins each year on the day known as Ash Wednesday which falls on different Wednesdays each year. This year it falls on a significant holiday observed every year on February 14. At first this may seem like a strange and ironic juxtaposition, but on further examination, the holiday and the holy day have a lot in common.
The February observance of Valentine’s Day started in the time of the Roman Empire. According to tradition, Valentine was a priest or bishop at Rome in the days of Claudius II. Under this emperor’s rule Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius (the Cruel) was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Believing that the reason was that Roman men did not want to leave their loves or families, Claudius canceled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Claudius had also outlawed Christianity because he, the Emperor of Rome, wished to be praised as the one supreme god.
Valentine and another priest, Marius, aided the Christian martyrs and secretly married young couples who came to them. Valentine was eventually caught and brought before the emperor. Claudius tried and tried to persuade Valentine to leave Christianity and serve the Roman empire and the Roman gods. In exchange, Claudius would pardon him and make him one of his allies. Valentine held to his faith and did not renounce Christ, so the emperor sentenced him to a three-part execution. First, Valentine would be beaten, then stoned, and finally, decapitated. While in prison waiting for his sentence to be carried out, Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter, Asterius. During the course of Valentine’s prison stay, a miracle occurred and she regained her sight. Valentine sent her a final farewell note, which he signed, “From Your Valentine.” He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, about the year 270 A.D..
At that time, February 14th was a holiday to honor Februata Juno, the queen of the Roman gods and goddesses, and the goddess of women and marriage. The following day the Feast of Lupercalia began. On the eve of Lupercalia the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and would then be “partners” for the duration of the festival with the girl whom he chose. Sometimes the pairing lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and later marry.
Later pastors of the Christian Church in Rome endeavored to do away with the lewd, pagan element in these feasts by substituting the names of saints for those of maidens. Both men and women were allowed to draw names, and the game was during the rest of the year to emulate the ways of the saint whose name they drew. (As you might guess, many of the young Roman men were not too pleased with the rule changes!) What better role model could they have than Valentine! Because he so loved the Lord and his fellow humans, he was willing to risk his life to free the prisoners and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who needed to hear it. In 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius set aside February 14th as St. Valentine’s Day in honor of Valentine’s great love and faithful witness.
Our Lord Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Valentine demonstrated such love when he died for his friends. God showed us this love by coming in Christ to die for our sins. This is the kind of love that Valentine’s Day is really about.
Yours In Christ,