Poor St. Valentine! Today’s commercializing of the holiday that bears his name overshadows the faith origins of the date and the saint’s sacrifice in the early centuries of the church. But this year, with Feb. 14 also marking the start of Lent, we have an opportunity to find special insight in the celebration of love and incorporate it into these next 40 days and beyond.
There have been several “St. Valentines,” but the one most closely associated with today’s holiday is St. Valentine of Rome, who was beheaded around A.D. 270 for his faith, especially, as legend tells, for secretly performing faith-based marriage ceremonies for Christian couples.
This selfless act speaks of the saint’s courage and dedication to forming faithful families; it also gives us a glimpse into the brave lives of early Christians who wanted to practice their faith, even if it meant doing so in defiance of the emperor and, most probably, others closer to them who disapproved of Christian belief and practices.
No wedding day hoopla for them, but clandestine vows exchanged in secret — a far cry from what we witness today!
These two aspects of the origins of Valentine’s Day — personal sacrifice for the promotion of the faith and bare-bones observance of faith practice — give much food for thought as we begin Lent.
Love, as lived by St. Valentine, was poured out in action that brought others close to Christ. No greeting cards, no broadcast email, no spending necessary; but an intimate sacrifice that demanded giving of himself and the profound vocation he embraced.
Very Lenten in tone and truth, as we approach 40 days of sacrifice, the example of St. Valentine can help us pare away superficial observances and focus on how we can put love — deep and compassionate — into actions that help others find and bind to Christ.
The love of the anonymous couples whom St. Valentine married was also extremely grounded in things beyond societal norms or expectations. By even approaching a priest to inquire about marriage, these early Christians risked exposure and, possibly, the same fate as the saint’s own martyrdom.
Today, we don’t risk the same kind of personal safety, but we do encounter resistance that can dull the light of the very love we carry in ourselves and among those we care about.
Perhaps we hesitate to tell someone of our love for Christ, for fear of rejection, or we focus so intently on our daily activity that we forget to include a from-the-heart, quiet recollection that builds up a strong, inner connection with God.
Perhaps, too, we compartmentalize Lent — “don’t do this, don’t eat that” — rather than letting it bubble up over and in every aspect of our lives and so take true root.
Perhaps we forget how bold, pure and powerful Christian love really is?
There have been Lenten seasons in the past when I confess I’ve taken these 40 days for granted, made more superficial sacrifices and allowed the scheduled calendar to overwhelm the spiritual flow of grace that is abundantly available with a more faithful intent.
But this Lent, thanks to St. Valentine, I’m reminded of the sacrifices made by earlier brothers and sisters in Christ. These, along with the knowledge that there remains much persecution of Christians in our world, helps me refocus on a Lent that I do not want to take for granted.
Rather, I hope to take Lenten love to heart and let it shine — and endure.
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