Who Was Saint Valentine?

A Superficial Celebration?

Many people write Valentine’s Day off as a superfluous commercial holiday, but perhaps it's worth taking a closer look at the connection between faith, spiritual growth, and this annual celebration of love. 

My first memories of the unofficial holiday involve exchanging valentines with my elementary school classmates. Each year, the teacher would provide a complete list of names to ensure that everyone was included. I remember sorting through my box of valentine cards deciding which picture or sentiment suited each person best, carefully writing their name in the “To” field and my name in the “From” field. On Valentine’s Day I felt that pure joy of childhood bubble up within me while hand-delivering my cards to each classmate’s desk. Often, we shared a snack of heart-shaped sugar cookies or pink cupcakes. Sometimes, we did construction-paper crafts with lacy white paper doilies. 

The Legend of Saint Valentine

Decades later, it dawned on me that Valentine, being a saint, must have been a person. And not just any person, but a Christian who lived a remarkable life. Someone possibly martyred for their actions. Who was Valentine, and how did their story lead to an annual celebration of romantic love?

As it turns out, there were three (or more!) martyrs recorded in church history named Saint Valentine, but surviving legends focus on a Roman physician-turned-bishop who ministered to persecuted Christians. The most famous story is that Valentine secretly performed weddings, which had been outlawed because the Roman emperor wanted to retain as many young men as possible as soldiers to wage his wars. 

Eventually, Valentine was imprisoned and sentenced to death for his ministry. Before he died, though, he befriended his jailer by miraculously healing the man’s blind young daughter. The story goes that before Valentine was beheaded (on February 14) he sent a note to the girl, signing it, “From your Valentine.” 

The story is legend. There isn’t much factual knowledge of any of the saints who were named Valentine; the details of their lives are lost to history. Still, we know that as martyrs they sacrificed their lives for Love.

St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers, epilepsy, and beekeepers, and his Saints Day is included in the Anglican and Lutheran calendars. 

Love One Another

My first lesson on Christian love came in my mid-twenties. A new believer, discovering scripture for myself in the early hours of each morning before my family awoke, I stumbled across 1 Corinthians 13. It wasn’t the first time I had encountered those famous verses, “Love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy…” and so forth. In those days, a few weddings occurred each year among my circle of friends, and the scripture was often included in the ceremony. In the context of a wedding, the words landed like a beautiful, idealistic poem. But that morning, reading alone beside a lamp in my dark living room, I realized in amazement that these verses weren’t about marriage or romantic love (per se), but instead were teachings on how all Christians should treat each other. They were instructions on how to be the church. 

In the weeks and months that followed, I carried these instructions inside my heart as I brushed up against those in my church family. They were still essentially strangers to me. As a shy young woman who’d had a secular upbringing, church life was something I observed quietly from the sidelines. I felt God’s love for me, but struggled to feel that I belonged among the Christian community. What did it mean for me to avoid pride in this context, or to expel envy from my heart? How to “not be self-seeking,” or to “not be easily angered,” and to “not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth?” Within the context of a church community, how would I “always protect,” “always hope,” and “always persevere?” 

Those ponderings started me on a long inner quest. Now, I’ve been a Christian for over half my life and God continually provides new answers to those old questions. Answers that translate to real daily living, participating in community, and not just reading, thinking, and idealizing love alone in my room. Jesus himself tells us,

“Remain in my love… When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love… This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:9-13.

The Christian life, it seems to me, is a daily practice of love. 

Classic Christian Authors on Love

The earliest surviving works of English literature written by a woman are the anchoress Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. She writes, 

“I had often wanted to know what was our Lord's meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit's understanding. "You would know our Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it? For love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more.”

In his book, The Four Loves, CS Lewis identified four kinds of human love and dedicated a section of the book to each; affection, friendship, eros (or romantic love), and charity.

When writing about loving the other Christians that we encounter in our lives, Lewis reminds us that God “can truly say to any group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” To Lewis’s point, the other people in my church community, like the children in my elementary school class, were brought into my life by unremarkable circumstances such as location, scheduling, and like-mindedness in preferences about liturgy and doctrine. Over the years I have connected with some Christians more deeply than others, but God has given all of us to each other to practice these love commands with.

In her best-known book, All About Love, American writer, cultural critic, and feminist bell hooks examines the relational breakdown between men and women in Western culture. Her book transcends romantic themes and explores what it would mean to live out a love ethic in all areas of life. In a chapter called Community: Loving Communion, hooks writes, 

“When we see love as the will to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, revealed through acts of care, respect, knowing, and assuming responsibility, the foundation of all love in our life is the same. There is no special love exclusively reserved for romantic partners. Genuine love is the foundation of our engagement with ourselves, with family, with friends, with partners, with everyone we choose to love.”

The source of our love is God. We love because God first loved us. 

In the late 80s, the Dutch priest, professor, writer, and theologian Henri J Nouwen was asked by a longtime friend–a secular Jewish journalist living a fast-paced life in New York–to “write something about the spiritual life for me and my friends.” 

After decades of ministry and nearing the end of his life, Nouwen responded to this question by writing Life of the Beloved. In its essence, the book encourages everyone to embrace their identity as God’s Beloved. Toward the end of the book he writes, 

“The unfathomable mystery of God is that God is a Lover who wants to be loved. The one who created us is waiting for our response to the love that gave us our being. God not only says: “You are my Beloved.” God also asks: “Do you love me?” and offers us countless chances to say “Yes.” That is the spiritual life: the chance to say “Yes” to our inner truth.”

Celebrate Love

We do so little to celebrate the love in our lives. Valentine’s Day, like every other day, provides us with a choice. We take what the world offers–in this case, a quaint, commercialized “hallmark holiday” –and we make a choice: to perform the shallow motions the world requires; to exclaim, “ba-humbug,” and reject the joy like a springtime scrooge; or to welcome the opportunity to let divine inspiration move our hearts ever closer to the Christian calling: To live a life of love. 

Finally, one of my favourite things about Valentine’s Day is that it’s just a day. It’s kind of nice that it doesn’t require a whole season of attention the way other holidays do. In the middle of each cold February, I relish the sweet and simple opportunity to celebrate the love in my life, and I hope this blog post awakens the divine spark of love within you, too.

February Receipt Reminder

If you work in church accounting or church administration, love is probably not the only thing on your mind this month. Canadians are heading into tax season! 

As registered charities, churches should have last year’s donation receipts issued to all donors no later than the end of February, according to the Canada Revenue Agency. Being respectful of that date provides your givers plenty of time to file their taxes ahead of the deadline. Being organized and efficient with your congregation’s financial data is one way to show your love through a heart of service to the people in your church. 

Want to explore more resources about giving receipts?

     Blog: Is Your Receipting Process As Efficient As It Could Be?

     Blog: Sending Digital and Physical Receipts with Ease

     Video: Donation E-Receipts with Sunergo Church Tools

     Video: E-Receipt FAQs

     Sunergo Help Centre: Articles on Giving

Remember, if you need help with receipting in Sunergo church tools, you can reach out to our support team anytime. 

Happy Valentine’s Day from your team at Sunergo!

Categories: Charities, Giving