Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentinus (ca. 269)

The great day celebrating romantic love is named after him, yet who he really was, no one knows. Nonetheless, February 14 is his legacy, and we piece together a little fact and a lot of legend to get his story.

Three third-century martyrs all carry the name Valentinus. One was a priest in Rome, one a bishop of Interamna, and one a Christian in the Roman province of Africa. About the lives of these three we know nothing. About the death of Valentinus at the decree of Claudius II, we think the story hinges on soldiering, marriages, and a cold-hearted emperor – all the ingredients of passion and power that prompted Pope Gelasius in 496 to declare St. Valentine’s Day as a replacement for the Roman pagan holiday of Lupercalia.

Apparently, recruits for Claudius’s army were complaining about their long separations from wives and lovers, for the edict went forth that no solider of Rome – may their hearts grow bloodlessly cold – could weaken his will or soften his courage in marriage. Of course, edicts do not command passions, so marriages simply went underground with an assist from the sympathetic priest Valentinus, to whom soldiers and their betrothed surreptitiously fled.

In time, the priest was caught and his treasonous disobedience duly sentenced by the Prefect of Rome. He was beaten by clubs and beheaded on February 14 in 269 or 270.

It’s an unlikely subplot, but nonetheless another story is told that during his imprisonment, Valentinus tutored his jailor’s daughter Julia, who was blind from birth. On the eve of his martyrdom, Valentinus sent her a note of encouragement and faith, including on it a yellow crocus. When Julia opened the note, the story goes, her blind eyes fixed on the flower and she was healed. In gratitude, Julia planted an almond tree near Valentinus’s grave. Today the almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship.

Excerpted from Foxe: Voices of the Martyrs, Pg. 62

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