Brothers and sisters: We speak a wisdom to those
who are mature, not a wisdom of this age, nor of
the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s
wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages
for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for, if
they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But as it is written: What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared
for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the
Spirit. (I Cor. 2:6-10)
Love is in the air in the wake of the flowers and chocolates of Valentine’s Day. In preparing for our Dinner Dance hosted by our Hispanic Community, I was asked about the Christian roots of this holiday.
Who was St. Valentine?
What is his connection with love?
Why do we send cards and chocolates to loved ones? Since Valentine’s Day is so popular and has a uniquely interesting history, I thought I’d start with a brief multiple choice quiz. Ready?
Was St. Valentine:
a. a priest in the Roman Empire who was thrown in jail and later beheaded because he helped persecuted Christians
b. the bishop of Terni who was beheaded during the reign of Claudius II
c. a courageous priest who clandestinely married couples when marriage was legally forbidden
d. an imprisoned Christian who secretly wrote letters to his jailer’s daughter which he signed “your valentine” as he awaited his execution on February 14
e. all, some, or a murky mixture of all of the above?
If you guessed e. have a piece of Valentine’s Day chocolate (if there’s any left). Because the facts about his life are more legendary than strictly historical, the Church dropped St. Valentine’s Day from the Roman calendar of official, liturgical feasts in 1969. This does not imply that St. Valentine is not a saint, nor that he did not exist, but since siblings Sts. Cyril and Methodius have more clear historical records, we celebrate their lives on February 14.
The seeds of St. Valentine’s Day were planted earlier by the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. For more than 800 years, the Romans had dedicated this day to Lupercus, a god of fertility and health (sometimes associated with the Greek god, Pan). On Lupercalia, a young man would draw the name of a young woman in a lottery and would then keep the woman as a companion for the year. Once Christianity became normative in the Roman Empire, this custom was dropped in favor of a lottery in which both young men and women would draw the names of saints whom they would emulate for the year. Instead of Lupercus, the patron of the feast became Valentine. For Roman men, the day continued to be an occasion to seek the affections of women, and it became a tradition to give out handwritten messages of admiration that included Valentine’s name.
In the Middle Ages, the English poet, Chaucer popularized this feast with a decidedly romantic flair. For example, in his poem “Parliament of Foules,” Chaucer links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of the feast day. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. Thus the day was dedicated to love, and people observed it by writing love letters and sending small gifts to their beloved. Legend has it that Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent the first real Valentine card to his wife in 1415, when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Shakespeare’s love sonnets fueled the romantic fire of the holiday. Eventually, this tradition came to the New World. When factory-made cards became popular in the 19th Century, Hallmark began mass producing valentines. According to market research, 60% of folks will celebrate the day. The average person spends $133.91 on flowers, cards, candy, and total spending tops $18.6 billion. The passion of love is powerful.
Our celebrations of love are a good reminder that love is more powerful than romantic senti-mentality. In our second reading, St. Paul reminds us that it is love itself which creates heaven. God is love and so the joys and blessings that He has prepared for our eternal destiny go beyond even our wildest dreams. It is one thing to talk about love; it is something else altogether to experience it. When we experience God’s love, our lives are transformed. The Gospel commandment to love one another is not the greatest just because Jesus mandated it; love is the catalyst which opens our hearts to receive the presence and joy of God in our lives. We are commanded to love because when we do, we flourish. Heaven is for lovers and God wants to be our Valentine. May we open our hearts to be pierced by the arrow of his love.
~ Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.