St. Valentine

Remembering prisoners on his feast day

by Ken Sehested

        In ancient Rome lived a man named Valentine. He was a priest and a physician but was not free to express his Christian faith without the threat of persecution. He tended to his patients by day and prayed for them by night. Eventually however, he was arrested for his faith and executed on Feb 14, 270 during one of the persecutions ordered by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. In 496, Pope Gelasius I established February 14 as St. Valentines Day.

        It is said that a jailer in a Roman prison had a daughter who was one of St. Valentine’s patients before he was arrested. He tended her for her blindness, but when he was arrested she still had not regained her sight. Before his execution, Valentine asked the jailer for some parchment and ink. He wrote the girl a note and signed it “From your Valentine.” When she opened the note, a yellow crocus flower fell out of the parchment and it was the first thing she had ever seen. She had received her sight. The crocus is the traditional flower of St. Valentine.

        Given this background story, a number of churches now prepare for Valentine’s Day by having children and youth send Valentine’s day cards and notes to prisoners.

More Valentine’s Day history

        As with many modern holiday traditions, Valentine’s Day draws from a jumble of historical memories. In the 15th century, English and French traditions recognized mid-February as the time when birds chose their mates. Surviving literature indicate that it became an occasion for sending romantic cards and letters. In ancient Rome, 14 February was the occasion to honor Juno, Goddess of women and marriage.

        On this eve of the festival of Lupercalia, a lottery was taken, with young boys randomly selecting the names of young girls, taking them as companions for the remainder of the festival.

        The Roman Catholic Church’s official list of saints actually have three entries for “St. Valentine,” all three of them martyred, at least two of which were executed for civil disobedience: One for simply practicing his faith when it was outlawed. A second for performing secret weddings when the Emperor, wanting his army stocked with single men, forbade such weddings.

        While the existence of a St. Valentine is not in doubt—archaelogists have unearthed a chapel built in his honor—reliable accounts of his (their?) life is scarce. Which is why, in 1969, the Vatican removed St. Valentine from its official list of feasts. However, St. Valentine’s Day is an official feast day in for Anglicans and Lutherans. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the day in July.

        Numerous cultures and countries around the world observe some form of annual recognition of a romantically-themed day.

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