THE COURTLY MONTH OF FEBRUARY makes for the saintly match of charmed lovers and gusty blizzards. It sets forth the marriage of fire and ice.
When I was once-upon-a-time a lad in elementary school, I exchanged with all my classmates a batch of little red Valentine cards laced with white cutouts and presented with tiny pink, heart-shaped candies, soliciting “Be My Valentine.” That was long before it crossed my mind to ask a newly found heartthrob to accompany me to the mid-winter dance on my very first date.
To put it succinctly, she was short and I was tall. When the school photographer ambled about taking impromptu snapshots for the yearbook, he merrily captured from behind my back a stunning photo revealing the presence of my charming dance partner, but disclosing nothing more than her gloved hand resting upon my slender shoulder. Her greater loveliness remained hidden from view of the camera.
Much to my chagrin, minutes later some churlish smart aleck suddenly brushed by the two of us as we danced the fox trot, and cruelly inquired, “Where did you find her? Did you pull her out of a hat?” He swiftly catapulted into the safety of the swirling crowd like the surly “fox” that he was. I distinctly remember being so utterly mortified by his outrageously rude rebuff that I swore to myself never again to speak to him. Despite the eruption of that persecutory moment in the midst of our youthful ecstasy, my lovely Valentine and I, only briefly deterred from our fancied world of bliss, danced on into the night with enchanted eyes fixed upon one another.
Little did I know at the time just how it was that Saint Valentine’s Day came to be. You might say that at its inception it was born of the order of a lover’s “blizzard.” For, as legend has it, Saint Valentine, a third century Christian priest, selflessly ministered to his fellow Christians during the blizzard of persecution instigated by the Roman emperor Claudius. He did so by deliberately defying the emperor’s summons for more soldiers to fight his wars. Saint Valentine, brooking no enamorment of imperial power, proceeded to marry young lovers so that the newly wed husbands could remain home with their wives instead of marching off to battle.
As the legend goes, the gracious and lovingly kind Valentine was met by the wrath of the emperor’s henchmen who ceremoniously beheaded the priest on the 14th of February. From this act of ultimate sacrifice, Valentine became known as the revered patron saint of lovers far and wide. During the subsequent annual commemorations of his holy feast day, it was said that the birds of the air joyfully sang their songs of seasonal mating. Thus “The Day of Wine and Roses,” now dedicated to the romancing of the hearts of lovers, was granted its nativity in the fire and ice of martyrdom.
As the liturgical season of Lent ushers in its deep consciousness of human sin and suffering, with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes culminating in Good Friday’s draping of the cross in black, the Christian calendar traces yet another straight line back through time, from the unsaintly decapitation of Saint Valentine to the gruesome cruciform hanging of Jesus of Nazareth. The secular mind, if it notices at all, may deem these two events to possess little more than remote likeness, a confluence of historical similarity by now having morphed unrecognizably into the marketable flavor of Godiva chocolates presented with a glass of Champaign wine and a dozen red roses, all very sweet to the scent and taste of postmodern love.
Yet, for the cognizant Christian, with respect to the ancient martyrdom that first took place as a solemn oblation before God—commemorated as Valentine’s Day—such an inauspicious “Saint’s Day” was not to be the unexpected consequence of the bloody sacrifice that preceded it on Good Friday. In both instances human slaughter was exacted at the brutal behest of imperial power. It was concerning just such things that Jesus called his followers to a different way of life: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”*
This is not to say that February’s “Day of Wine and Roses” should consist of anything less than the most amorous of glorious celebrations, with rosebuds in hand and grapes of affection adorning the lips. But it is to say that a Hallmark card does not begin to tell the whole story. February the 14th, as we have come to know it, is little more than a gloved hand resting upon a slender shoulder, in contrast to the heavy hand laid upon the head of Saint Valentine, which for the average lover is still hidden from view of the camera.
So, how would it be if we who are Christian were to commemorate February the 14th as a day for true love in the same spirit that Saint Valentine celebrated his defiance of Emperor Claudius in front of the lovers who stood before him, consummated as a martyr’s marriage of fire and ice? What if true lovers everywhere were to join hands and hearts in resistance to imperial edicts that make not for love but for tyranny and war?
How might this change the picture on little red Valentine cards laced with white cutouts presented with tiny pink, heart-shaped candies, soliciting “Be My Valentine”? The reliquary remains at the Shrine of Saint Valentine offer a sobering clue.
When self-absorbed autocrats induce the flame and smoke of repression and war, then the taste of profoundly sacrificial love, which is true to God’s love rather than Caesar’s hunger for power and conquest, is anything but sweet bliss. And when this is so, Caesar invariably takes note.
True love always defies the unjust and unloving ways of bullies and tyrants who by their flagrant abuses of power prey upon the lives and liberties of common folk whose love for one another makes them the true saints.
*Mark 10: 42-43, NRSV
Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising; Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers)
©Charles Davidson – An adaptation of the original published in The Presbyterian Outlook, February 11, 2002