Just last month, flowers, chocolate and aisles decorated in every shade of red and pink surrounded us for the nation’s most polarizing holiday: Valentine’s Day. If you’re in a relationship, the holiday can be a sweet time of cards and dinner dates. And if you’re single, you might be less than thrilled by Hallmark’s marketing campaign at that time of year.
But for many, it represents love. The weeks leading up to it buzz with excitement over finding “The One.” Hallmark movies with cute (but impossible) story lines and wintry scenes in New York City lead us to believe that true love is a world of constant romance. But once the holiday is over, the daily grind reminds us that love isn’t a succession of gifts and flowers. It has nothing to do with chocolate.
There was a man who knew this better than anyone. He not only believed in true love, he defended it—to the point of death.
Saint Valentine was a priest who lived in the third century, somewhere around AD 240–270. At this time, the Roman Empire was still in power, specifically the Emperor Claudius. Claudius believed soldiers fought better without distraction, and that marriage—especially for young men—was exactly the kind of distraction to avoid. In line with his view of marriage, Claudius outlawed it for the young citizens of the Roman Empire.
Polygamy—usually one man married to several women—was also a common practice of the time. For young Christians living in the Roman Empire, the hope for a biblical marriage was assaulted by both the culture and the government. Those who got married could be punished, as could the officials who oversaw the ceremony. This is where Saint Valentine was involved.
Valentine believed young people should be free to marry according to God’s design. He began to perform secret ceremonies for Christian couples against the emperor’s edict, endangering his own life. Before long, Claudius discovered what Valentine was doing. The priest was arrested and thereafter condemned to a threefold martyrdom: beating, stoning and beheading.
This graphic and sad story doesn’t sound much like roses and hearts. Yet it reflects a level of meaning much deeper than the Valentine’s Day we know in modern times. Today we celebrate love as an emotion; Valentine died for love as a choice.
While emotion is indeed a part of love, true love is made of sacrifice and commitment. Each couple who asked Valentine to marry them was willfully disobeying the emperor’s edict. In choosing love, they were risking everything. In choosing to marry them, Valentine lost his life.
We’re accustomed to stories where men are willing to “die for love”—laying it all on the line for the woman of their dreams. When Valentine died for love, he didn’t die for his own gain. He died to give others the freedom to choose love for themselves. Valentine was the ultimate hero of a tragic love story.
It’s easy to accept our culture’s definition of love as a succession of perfect dates and romantic gifts, perfect proposals and expensive weddings. But love is not made up of these things. Like Valentine’s life proved, true love requires sacrifice. Valentine didn’t have a “valentine.” He wasn’t worried about himself. He was too busy fighting to preserve God’s love in a world that didn’t recognize it. That’s something all of us can do—single or in a relationship. It’s something we can do for our friends, family and neighbors.
The love of God is not limited to relationship statuses. It’s meant to be carried in our hearts to everyone we meet. It’s a commitment. It’s a sacrifice. And it’s a choice. So whether or not you had a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day, you can be a Valentine to your world.