There’s a lot of mystery surrounding St. Valentine, but there’s consensus among Christian scholars that such a man did exist. In fact, there were three Valentines martyred in the third century A.D.: one a bishop, one a priest, and one a missionary in Africa. “Valentine” was a popular name, because it signified courage and honor, and there was a pope by that name, in the 9th century.
It’s the bishop of Terni who’s associated with love, a connection that’s persisted down through many centuries. The legend has only grown as the man himself becomes more distant. Every year the post office releases the volume of mail devoted to valentines, usually about a quarter of the mail posted every year.
It was Valentine’s defiance of a Roman emperor that prompted our custom of exchanging affectionate greetings on February 14, the day that Valentine the bishop was cruelly murdered in Rome by Claudius II. Sarah Wastella, senior pastor at Crozet United Methodist Church, tells the story of the first Valentine in a sermon written shortly before Valentine’s Day, 2022.
Claudius, a barbarian who became emperor after a successful military career, is said to have outlawed marriage during his brief (two-year) reign. The bishop refused to comply, and was ultimately jailed and sentenced to death by beating and beheading. The reasoning by Claudius was that men who became too attached to their wives and families didn’t make good soldiers, and the emperor had a number of wars going on at different fronts as he tried to reunite the former Roman Empire.
While awaiting his gruesome fate, Valentine befriended his jailer. Wastella pointed out in her sermon that this seems to be a tendency of the early martyrs, and usually worked out for the good of the jailer. In this case, the man had a blind daughter and Valentine, who had also trained as a physician, managed to cure her. Shortly before he was dragged away to his death, the saint sent the daughter a note, signed “your Valentine.” This wasn’t a romantic message, just a few lines wishing her well. But this, plus his stand on marriage, made him the patron saint of love or, more precisely, love messages. For obscure reasons, Valentine is also the patron saint of epileptics, and of beekeepers. Some legends say he was 97 years old before his martyrdom; others say his skull is enshrined in an Italian church and a likeness was made using the bones of his face.
In her sermon, Wastella described a larger lesson about love drawn from the scriptures. “There are more than 613 commandments in the Old Testament,” she said. To test Jesus, a scribe in the crowd asked him to identify the most important. His famous answer consolidated them all into two pronouncements. The first––to love God with your whole being––is easy compared the second, she said.
“How do we love our neighbors (by this, Jesus means everyone we come across) as ourselves, when there are people who we can’t stand; people we don’t even want to know?” she asked. In addition to the people whom we don’t want to know, there are specific people who we once may have liked or loved but now seem impossible to forgive. It doesn’t matter, Wastella said. “We’re commanded to reconcile, forgive and love.”
Self-sacrifice, Love and Marriage
Fr. Michael Abrahamson of St. Nicholas Ukranian Orthodox Church in Greenwood, said the orthodox community actually celebrates the feast day of two different saints with the name Valentine––one is a priest and the other a bishop, both martyrs–– on July 6 and 30.
Abrahamson said there’s something to be learned by examining romantic love and the self-sacrifice of the martyr. “There is a strong connection with the way we view the ultimate expression of that love through the self-sacrificial character of marriage,” he said. “The marriage service in the Orthodox Church contains many prayers and references to martyrdom. It’s a reminder that marriage, in its most perfect expression, requires each person to continually sacrifice their own selfish desires for the sake of their partner.”
Abrahamson said St. Paul compared marriage to Christ’s relationship to the Church, and a passage to that effect from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is read during the marriage service. There is also a hymn sung as the couple takes its first steps as a married couple, while wearing crowns upon their heads, which includes the words:
“O holy martyrs who fought the good fight and have received your crowns: entreat ye the Lord, that He will have mercy on our souls.”
Unlike priests in the Roman Catholic tradition, many orthodox religions allow priests to marry. Acknowledging that St. Valentine was martyred because of his commitment to Christian marriage, Abrahamson said: “Romantic love is a great blessing, particularly when it is built upon this self-sacrificial foundation.”
Help for the Heartbroken at Hillsboro Baptist
You don’t have to be a member of the church, or pay a fee, or even be required to speak during the 12-week session of GriefShare, a support group meeting at Hillsboro Baptist Church beginning Tuesday, February 28.
Chris Erwin, who directs the group, said no one will mind if you spend most of the time in silence, or even in tears. “No one will judge you,” he said. “We’ve all been there. There will never be any pressure to express yourself one way or another.”
Erwin became interested in grief support with the sudden loss of his son two years ago. He found GriefShare and it made a meaningful difference to him in his painful loss. “We’re not mental health professionals or ministers,” he said. He describes GriefShare as a caring group of people who walk together through life’s most difficult experiences. He said it doesn’t matter if the loss is recent or in the past. All are welcome.
This is the second time the group has been offered, and Erwin said he was pleased with the progress of last year’s series. “It was a small group, which was good,” he said, “and we saw some real heart mending and healing.” He found the structure of GriefShare’s weekly topics helpful in focusing on the many different aspects of loss, and in providing practical tools for walking through grief.
Hillsboro Baptist Church is located at 6406 Hillsboro Lane in Yancey Mills. There is no cost to attend GriefShare meetings. The 12-week season will be on Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. beginning February 28.
To register, visit www.grief share.org and search for the group in Crozet, Virginia. Call (434) 484-2204 for more information.
Long-time pastor of Hebron Baptist Church, Billy Coffey, has retired after more than 10 years in that ministry. Hebron Baptist, in Afton, is a small congregation that has offered the world an amazing Christmas village every holiday for 20 years, except the past few years when the pandemic has prevented it.
St. Paul’s, Ivy, has announced its new director of music ministries, Mitchell R. Weisiger. Weisiger’s first Sunday at St. Paul’s is March 5.