When we consider St. Valentine—the early Christian martyr for whom Valentine’s Day is named—his identity remains a mystery. There were numerous Christian martyrs named Valentine, and any number of them could have been the one whose name we remember every year. Regardless of his identity, I’m certain he would not recognize the current customs of Valentine’s Day as being associated with him. In fact, he might not even recognize some of the stories about his life as belonging to him at all! Would he remember handing a heart-shaped note signed “your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter, much less remember healing that girl of her blindness? These and many other stories about saints and martyrs seem to spin out of control over time, much like the focus of today’s Valentine’s Day celebrations.
There is one thing we can be confident about concerning this mysterious Valentine figure: he was killed for confessing his faith in Christ. And while we might view martyrdom as a very sad outcome for any Christian, many of the early Christian martyrs do not seem to have shared that sentiment. For instance, the story written about the martyrdom of Polycarp, one of the prominent early Christian martyrs, contains this conclusion: “He was apprehended by Herodes, when Philip of Tralles was high priest, in the proconsulship of Statius Quadratus, but in the reign of the Eternal King Jesus Christ. To whom be the glory, honor, greatness, and eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen.” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 21:1) We pray that the lives of all martyrs end with this confidence, that though the rulers of the day should bring about their death, the true Ruler of all has already guaranteed their life.
So, Valentine’s Day was simply a day for Christians to commemorate a man who, like many before him, died with his hope founded in Christ Jesus as his Savior. Clearly today’s holiday, with its exclusive focus on romantic love and the sinful culture that is often conflated with romantic love, represents a drastic departure from the original intent. That’s not to say, however, that we can’t celebrate the gift of love that God has given us. After all, true love is that self-sacrificing devotion that we may have for one another, reflecting the very same love that God has for us.
But I think there’s also value in contemplating martyrdom, of all things, on Valentine’s Day. We live in an age of martyrdom. We still see persecution toward Christians unfolding all around us in the world. Valentine’s Day can remind us that this is not the unusual thing, rather it’s the ordinary lot for Christians. After all, Jesus said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) But even if such persecution were to land on our doorsteps—if our government started rounding up Christians for public execution—even then we would bear in mind Who’s really in charge. We wouldn’t need to be afraid, for the Gospel perseveres in all of these challenges. That self-sacrificing love of your Savior endures for you into eternity, and not even death will be able to separate you from it.
So, as distorted as our culture is on Valentine’s Day and about love itself, love remains what God says it is. Love is ultimately the giving of oneself for another. Laying down one’s life for the other. Submitting to one another—that is, putting the other one first. And my love falls far short, as does yours. The only one I know that truly loves is the One who has loved us by laying down His own life, Jesus Christ.
Saint Valentine is said to have ministered to the faithful amidst the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire