Valentine’s Day

By Catherine Sider-Hamilton
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When my children were young, Valentine’s Day was hugely exciting. We made cookies with pink icing in heart shapes. We got those boxes of Valentine’s ‘cards’  -- actually tiny strips of paper that did not deserve to be dignified by the name ‘card’, but the kids loved them, and they painstakingly tore them apart on the dotted lines and wrote a name on every one, for every child in their class; Caitlin, the artistically inclined, made valentines for every child in her class; glitter and glue, markers and paint and paper scraps everywhere; it was chaos. But it was delighted chaos. Such anticipation: The cards! The chocolate! The party during Math time!

So when I heard that at least one school in Toronto has banned Valentine’s Day this year, I was sad. This is February. We need a feast! We need this feast, that is about love.

It is ancient: even the Romans had a feast on this day, the Lupercalia, more of a riot than a feast, in fact, but it did celebrate Juno, goddess of marriage. It is an ancient feast; it is enduring; still we celebrate love and marriage on this day. Its sign is a heart. A heart! How can we ban a heart?

And what a heart it was. St. Valentine, the story goes (or one story; there are a number of them) was a Christian priest who lived in the time of a pagan emperor, Claudius II Gothicus (so-called because he drove back the Goths). The emperor banned Christianity. Also, he banned marriage, because he needed young men to fight in his army (those Goths) and marriage granted you an exemption.

Claudius II banned marriage. But young men and women kept falling in love. So Valentine kept marrying them. Secretly he married them. And they came to him to be married.

Claudius threw him in prison. There, Valentine struck up a friendship with his jailor and the jailor’s daughter, who was blind. Valentine told them about the love of Christ. His jailor was skeptical: Prove to me this love, he said; prove to me this grace; show me this Christ. So Valentine prayed for the jailor’s daughter – and she regained her sight. At her healing the jailor ἐχάρησεν χαρὰν μεγάλην --  Matthew gives us the words: like the magi when they found the Christ child, the jailor was overwhelmed with joy. He and his household were baptized.

Valentine was executed on February 14. Just before he died, they say, he sent the girl a farewell note. He signed it “From Your Valentine.”

From your Valentine: this is a feast about love – about the love we all delight in, the love we all seek, the love sown deep in the human heart.

The Romans sought this love and celebrated it, even in their capricious gods – in Juno, of all the gods! surely no role model for marriage (just read the Aeneid).

But Jesus gave us this love sanctified, taken into his holy life and given back as grace, a divine self-giving to heal the world. Valentine married those young men and women for love’s sake: because the love that gives itself in marriage is good; because by the grace of God our love in marriage is made self-giving; because in marriage our love becomes a sign of Christ and the place of his grace.

Each little heart the children cut out, every valentine, holds within it this great story, Valentine’s story, his life given on a February day long ago. His life given – for marriage! Imagine it! Now, when few of us bother to get married at all! His life given for love of them, that those young men and women might find in their marriages a love as yet unimagined, the self-giving love of the Christ.

“From your Valentine”: a word of hope to us on Valentine’s Day.