180 million roses. 36 million boxes of candy. 150 million greeting cards. And a whopping $14 BILLION total spent on Valentine’s Day can be loosely traced back to a humble Roman priest. Never in a million years would he have guessed that his actions and his life would eventually prompt the biggest boost in retail budgets of the year except for Christmas.
After all, who can resist the cute stuffed animals bearing pink or red hearts? Or the tee shirts with “LOVE” emblazoned in sparkly letters? Or the sensuous red cardboard boxes with mouth watering chocolates inside? Everywhere we go the atmosphere is festive with balloons, hearts, flowers, candy, cards and decorations and all week long it feels like it’s someone’s birthday. In fact, I’m sure it IS someone’s birthday so if you’re having a birthday this week you can pretend it’s all about YOU!
A whopping $14 BILLION total spent on Valentine’s Day can be loosely traced back to a humble Roman priest.
My parents married on Valentine’s Day so the day always carried a special significance in our home. After the death of my father, I made a special effort to celebrate the occasion with my mother, knowing that she would miss the one she loved especially on that day. But Valentine’s Day was not established to celebrate a birthday or an anniversary, but rather to commemorate the death of a certain Roman priest on February 14.
St. Valentine of Terni, Italy, served during the reign of Emperor Claudius II during the Third Century. An ambitious and power hungry leader, Claudius felt that unmarried soldiers fought better than married ones who might tend to be preoccupied with thoughts about their wives or families or with worry of what would happen to their families if they were to die in battle. For this reason, Claudius proclaimed an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people.
Valentine, however, felt tender toward young couples who were in love and began marrying them in secret. Some sources say he also aided Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius of Rome. When Claudius discovered Valentine’s clandestine activities, he had him killed in 3 stages: first beating, then stoning and finally beheading. (Sorry to put that gruesome image into your brain during the current “love fest” all around you.) But basically February 14 was established to commemorate a martyr who refused to abide by rules which went against the grain of his own conscience.
Thinking about that brave soul brings conviction and clarity to me. What causes or people would I die for? What is more important to me than my own life? The first time the nurses brought to me the swaddled baby that I had just birthed a few hours before, I cradled him in my arms and realized here was actually someone I would give my very life for. A new level of bravery had been birthed along with that child. My protective instincts were primal and fierce. There was no man or beast I would not meet in battle in order to protect that young life. Even if it meant my death. Surely this is something of what Valentine felt.
What causes or people would I die for? What is more important to me than my own life?
Father Frank O’Gara of Dublin, Ireland has this to say about the martyred saint, “What Valentine means to me – there comes a time where you have to lay your life upon the line for what you believe. With the power of the Holy Spirit we can do that – even to the point of death.”
My dad loved to read from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and often when he preached would retell stories of those who had died for their faith. The book was first published in 1563 in England and has been republished many times since. Reading it is both horrifying and inspiring all at the same time. I pulled my copy off the shelf recently and was looking at the list of names of those killed under the reign of Henry VIII. Their names, occupations and how and where they died are all there. There were a few clergymen on the list, but mainly I saw teachers, lawyers, painters, tailors, musicians and even one listed simply as an “aged father”. I never knew them but I admire them just the same.
And I ask myself, “Would I have done that?” “Could I have done that?” “Would my level of courage and conviction be strong enough to withstand whatever consequences following my beliefs might bring?” It’s a sobering thought amidst the frivolity all around us this week.
One of the most striking quotes I found while reading through John Foxe’s book was this one: “Sire –I have received an order, under your majesty’s seal, to put to death all the protestants in my province. I have too much respect for your majesty, not to believe the letter a forgery; but if (which God forbid) the order should be genuine, I have too much respect for your majesty to obey it.”
I am humbled by such predecessors who were armed in iron clad wills yet possessed spirits that were gentle and even meek. Integrity to that degree must have been embedded in their very bones! I want to be the kind of person who has the moral fiber and strength of character to live my convictions and speak my truths regardless of what may come. On this day I will welcome any gifts of candy or flowers or an especially sumptuous meal with the one I love. But also on this day I will spend some time in introspection, in prayer and in meditation. I will ask myself the hard questions and search for the truths that lie in the deepest part of me. And oddly enough, I will consider a man named Valentine as I do.
“Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Matthew 16:25