As early as the fourth century BC, the Romans engaged in an annual ritual for young men associated with the pagan god, Lupercus. The names of teenage girls were placed in a box and drawn at random by adolescent men. In this manner a young man was assigned a young woman companion, for their mutual entertainment and pleasure, which did not exclude the sensual, for the duration of a year, after which another lottery was held.
Determined to put an end to this eight-hundred-year-old practice, the early church fathers sought to find a saint to replace the pagan deity Lupercus. They found such a person in Valentine. His story begins in Rome around AD 269.
Valentine had upset the emperor Claudius II (AD 268-270) who had issued an edict forbidding marriage. Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers, being inclined to leave the field of battle for their families. Because the empire needed faithful and dedicated soldiers who could concentrate on military matters, Claudius decided to abolish marriage.
Alarmed at the imperial decree, Valentine, bishop of Interamna, an ancient town of Italy, invited young people in love to come to him in secret, where he united them in the sacrament of matrimony.
Claudius learned of this “friend of lovers,” and had the bishop brought to the palace. The emperor was impressed with the young priest’s dignity and conviction. Claudius tried to convert Valentine to the Roman gods, upon the penalty of death. Valentine refused to renounce Christ, or Christianity, and in return tried to convert the emperor. On February 14, AD 269, Valentine was clubbed, stoned, and then beheaded.
Legend claims that while Valentine was in prison awaiting execution, he fell in love with the blind daughter of the jailer, Asterius, and even restored her sight in a miraculous way. He then signed a farewell message to her “From your Valentine,” a phrase that had touched the hearts of multitudes.
In AD 496, Pope Gelasius I (AD 492-496) conceived the idea that the story of Valentine should have pre-eminence to the honor given to Lupercus. Therefore, Gelasius simply outlawed the mid-February, Lupercian festival. But he also did something else. He retained the lottery, because he was aware of Romans love for games of chance. However, into the box that had once held the names of available, and willing single women, was placed the names of saints.
Now, when young men and women extracted slips of paper, they drew out the name of a saint, and were told to emulate the life of the saint whose name they had drawn. In this way the church once more took a pagan holiday, and transformed it into a spiritual day for the glory of God, and the good of the community.
The story of St. Valentine reminds the heart of other stories associated with love, such as the one found in John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
A certain medieval monk announced he would be preaching next Sunday evening on “The Love of God.”
As the shadows fell, and the light ceased to come in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered.
In the darkness of the area near the altar, the monk lit a candle, and carried it to a work of Christ on the Cross.
First of all, he illumined the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then, the marks of the spear wound.
In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle, and left the chancel.
There was nothing else to say.
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.
“I heard a bold and daring story in France that will illustrate my point. It was told that a young man, much loved of his mother, pursued a wicked course that took him deeper and deeper into sin. He became enamored of an evil woman who dragged him further and further into unrighteousness.
The mother naturally sought to draw him back to a higher plane and the other woman resented it bitterly.
One night, the story goes, the evil woman chided the man with an accusation that he did not really love her. He vowed that he did. She appealed to his drunken mind, saying, that if he loved her, he would rid them of his mother and her pleadings.
According to the story, the young man rushed from the room to the nearby house in which his mother dwelt, and dealt her death blows, tearing the heart from her body to carry back to his paramour.
Then comes the climax of the tale.
As he rushed on in his insane folly, he stumbled and fell, and from the bleeding heart there came a voice,
“My son, are you hurt?”
That is the way God loves you. Charles Wesley has sung it in one of his grandest hymns:
Depth of mercy! can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear?
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?
I have long withstood His grace,
Long provoked Him to His face;
Would not hearken to His calls,
Grieved Him by a thousand falls.
And yet that God still loves us. How true, then, it is that the good news is the gospel of God.
(Expositions of Bible Doctrines © 1966 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved).