Candy Hearts or Martyrdom?: The Real Meaning of Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2021

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On February 14, the Church celebrates the witness of Saints Cyril and Methodius—no, I did not just make a mistake. While today’s date remains in the popular culture associated with St. Valentine, a Roman priest who died sometime around the year 270, the official calendar of the Catholic Church no longer recognizes today as the Feast of St. Valentine.

St. Valentine’s feast day was a victim of a purge of saints feast days from the Church’s calendar following the Second Vatican Council. The reason cited for this move is often given as that some saints lacked the necessary historical provenance to justify their commemoration. In other words, history has so given way to legend that it was no longer possible to discern truth from fiction.

This may be the case, but whatever the Church might have gained in accuracy, was paid for with a loss of poetic vision. 

Sts. Cyril and Methodius are known as the “Apostles to the Slavs.” They were missionaries in that region of Europe where the culture of the East meets the culture of the West. Their missionary efforts represent a powerful example of cooperation between the Church of the West and the East.

Along with their zeal for evangelization, the two saints are known as the fathers of the Slavic language. They developed the Glagolitic or Cyrillic alphabet, the elegant script of which can still be seen today in the letters of Russian and other eastern European languages.

Culture and language are linked, and the Church is a builder and creator of both. Missionary efforts are civilizing endeavors, and lead to rich expressions of art, literature, architecture, science, and theology.

The popular culture of modernity resists this truth about religion in general and Christianity in particular, but the witness and legacy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius contradicts the lie that faith is poisonous to the project of human flourishing.

What we know of the “real” St. Valentine is that he was a Roman priest who was killed because he would not renounce his faith in the Lord Jesus. If the date of around 270 is right for his death, he was martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth (Goth refers to his cultural affiliation, not his preference for black clothing).

Legend records that St. Valentine was killed when he was discovered presiding at the marriage of a Christian couple, thus the association of the saint with romantic love and affection.

More likely is that devotion to the saint melded with customs associated with the Roman feast of Lupercalia—a carnival like event in which young man wandered the street wearing only the skin that God gave them and accosting young ladies who had the misfortune of appearing outdoors.

The custom sounds bizarre, if not illegal, to us. It was a fertility ritual and the in-your-face sensuality of it was domesticated (one might say “Christianized”) over time. I imagine most would prefer gifts of chocolates, flowers, and greeting cards to naked young men running amok in the streets.

Lupercalia was celebrated around February 13–15.

St. Valentine, as a martyr, represents a different kind of love than that of the popular culture’s vision of romantic affection. His love is the love of God in Christ—not mere affection, but a willingness to given one’s whole life as a sacrifice for one’s beloved. Christ’s love is precisely this kind of love. St. Valentine accepted this love, and in his willingness to die rather than deny Christ, he demonstrated such love himself.

That is a witness worth remembering—whether or not the Feast of St. Valentine is formally celebrated on February 14.

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