It was 3rd-century Rome. Emperor Claudius was engaged in deadly and unpopular military campaigns. He needed a strong fighting force, but in this time of political turmoil and crisis he was having trouble recruiting and keeping people in his army. Married men made bad fighters, he reasoned, since they were concerned about the wives and families they left behind. His logic: Unmarried men=Better warriors. So, he outlawed marriages and engagements for young people in Rome.
Enter Valentine.** This young priest believed marriage was a God-ordained sacrament and important for God’s purposes in the world. He wanted to preserve God’s picture of men and women committed in a marriage relationship for life. So, he began performing illegal marriages for the young people in Rome. In these secret marriages, he was upholding what he believed was important in the faith, at the risk of betraying the emperor and his government. Marriage was that important.
As Valentine’s work gained popularity, word of his actions reached Emperor Claudius. He was confronted about the marriages he was performing—and about the faith that motivated him. He was imprisoned, beaten, and beheaded around 270 AD.
Couples around the world will celebrate Valentine’s Day tomorrow. The folks at Fortune estimate that in the U.S. alone, $18.2 billion will be spent on what has become an incredibly commercialized holiday. It’s a lovey-dovey day of hearts and candy and flowers and dinner reservations. It can be a hard day for single folks, who feel the ache of loneliness. But when I think of this Valentine—the one of church history—I’m reminded of something much different from this Valentine’s Day.
1. Valentine saw marriage as a commitment sacred enough to die for.
Valentines “celebration of love” was far from fluffy and rosy. For him, marriage was something worth dying for. For these couples, “until death do we part”, as we now say, was a reality. This man he was marrying might be going into bloody battles; this woman might become a young widow. The world tore at them—trying to even prevent them from marriage. Sexual freedom and openness were available to them, but marriage was sacred enough to risk breaking the law to enter into. There was no room for romance held aloft by feelings and sweet love songs or for passing fancy—marriage was a risky commitment. Valentine’s actions held aloft marriage as a beautiful life-long picture of God’s design, and they remind us that it is a serious business—a relationship to fight to preserve.
2. Valentine championed marriage…as a single person.
As far as we know, Valentine was single. We have no mention of his wife, and as a priest, he likely adhered to a celibate life, as was becoming popular but not yet mandated in the church. His life’s work was dedicated to the Lord, and he gave up his life for love of the Lord. He played a key role in the marriages of his brothers and sisters in Christ as a single person—and perhaps because he was single. He might not have been so bold to do the work he did if he had been married. He was a champion of marriage—putting his life on the line to preserve and protect something that he did not (and maybe could not) enjoy. He reminds me that single and married people alike in the church are integral parts of marriage—it is not exclusive, and it is not isolated. All of us can and should uplift, fight for, and encourage the marriages of our fellow Christians. He also reminds me that we should celebrate singleness as a privileged position that can serve the church in a uniquely free, unencumbered, bold way.
So as we enter into Valentine’s Day tomorrow, let’s clear away the cobwebs of what our culture tells us this day of “love” is about. Let’s remember our brother Valentine, this persistent single man who laid down his life to uphold marriage and the love of God.
**The story of St. Valentine is hard to nail down. There may have been as many as three different Valentines martyred in 3rd-century Rome, connected to February 14. Since then, there have been many other saints named “Valentine.” Traditionally, Valentine’s Day has been associated with the young priest I describe here.