This Sunday, 14 February is Transfiguration Sunday and St. Valentine’s day. So…

Saint Valentine, officially known as Saint Valentine of Rome, is a third-century Roman saint.  His feast day which we celebrate on February 14 first started in 496 AD.

There is actually very little that we know for sure about St. Valentine.  One of the reasons for the lack of certainty is that there are three different Saint Valentines mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.  One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.  The existing accounts of the first two of these saints are of a late date and similarities in the accounts may mean they are actually a single person.

In all, there are about a dozen St. Valentines, plus a pope.  Although we do not know much about this pope Valentine either, all we know is that he was Pope for only 40 days around 827 AD.  The reason there are so many St Valentines is that “Valentinus”—from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful—was a popular nickname between the second and eighth centuries A.D., so several martyrs over the centuries have carried this name.

According to a late medieval legend, a Roman priest named Valentinus was arrested during the reign of Emperor Claudius II and put into the custody of an aristocrat named Asterius.  Committed to his Christian faith and the commission to make disciples Valentinus would talk about Jesus the Christ leading pagans out of the shadow of darkness and into the light of truth and salvation.  Asterius made a bargain with Valentinus, if the Valentine could cure Asterius’s daughter of blindness, he would convert. Valentine put his hands over the girl’s eyes and chanted:

“Lord Jesus Christ, en-lighten your handmaid, because you are God, the True Light.”

The child was healed and Asterius and his whole family were baptized.  Unfortunately, when Emperor Gothicus heard the news, he ordered them all to be executed.  But Valentinus was the only one to be beheaded in the year 269.

A similar legend tells that Valentine refused to sacrifice to pagan gods.  Being imprisoned for this, Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness.  On the day of his execution, he left her a note that was signed, “Your Valentine”.

Other medieval legends speak of the Roman Emperor Claudius II.  As legend has it, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns.  The emperor, Claudius had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues.  Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.  In order to solve the problem Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome.  Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.

When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off.  The sentence was carried out on February 14, on or about the year 270.

Although these legends seem to connect St Valentine and Valentine’s Day with love and couples the love connection more likely appeared more than a thousand years after the martyrs’ death.  Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval English poet and author of “The Canterbury Tales” decreed the February feast of St. Valentinus to the mating of birds.  He wrote in his “Parlement of Foules”:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

The English people welcomed the idea of February pairings.  Shakespeare’s lovestruck Ophelia spoke of herself as Hamlet’s Valentine.  In the following centuries, Englishmen and women began using Feb. 14 as an excuse to write to loved ones.  Industrialization made it easier with mass-produced greetings cards. Then along came Cadbury, Hershey’s, and other chocolate manufacturers marketing sweets for one’s sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.

Fun fact, although being associated with courtly love St. Valentine is also a patron saint of beekeepers and epilepsy, as well as the plague, fainting and traveling.

Rev Tammy Hollands