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    Was Saint Valentine a Stranger to Romance?

    Today’s Hallmark holiday would confound the man for whom it is named.

    By Dani Treweek

    February 13, 2023

    They say never to let facts get in the way of a good story. And Valentine’s Day certainly tells a good story, doesn’t it? Starting in mid-January every year, shop displays, social media ads, and streaming-service jingles are eager to sell us a story of love, romance, and happily-ever-afters come February 14. But what are the facts behind Valentine’s Day? Unfortunately, they lack the clarity of those diamond studs on sale.

    Early hagiographical sources tell of at least two different Christian martyrs named Valentine. Some later commentators suggest that the earlier Valentine, who was beheaded on February 14 in AD 273, came to infamy because of his willingness to disobey an imperial edict forbidding young Roman men to marry (in an effort to keep them on the military field) by conducting clandestine Christian marriage ceremonies. But not only is the evidence of such an edict sketchy; there is also no ancient evidence that our saint engaged in any such marital subterfuge. In fact, there is no pre-medieval evidence at all that connects either of our Valentines with love or romance. So how exactly did he become the patron saint of lovers? And why did his feast day turn into the commercial bacchanalia that is our Valentine’s Day?

    Again, the story is mired in conjecture. In a nutshell, it seems to have developed as some sort of combination of historical fact with legend, into which mix was thrown an ancient pagan fertility festival (the rather raucous and shocking Lupercalia) and the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. Add a little assistance from Shakespeare and a lot of assistance from Hallmark and voila! – I receive an email from Apple encouraging me to “show them how I feel this Valentine’s Day with a gift from Apple.” (Apparently, the iPhone 14 is a particularly good option for those who wish to make a love connection.)

    illustration of St. Valentine on a vintage greeting card

    A vintage Valentine’s Day card

    If the story is a good one, the facts don’t really matter. But is our contemporary Valentine’s Day story truly a good story? Not good in the sense of being enjoyable or entertaining, but in the sense of being good for us?

    Once again, history proves itself useful on this matter. Suppose Saint Valentine was actually secretly officiating Christian marriages of besotted young Roman men and women behind the emperor’s back. The problem with this story is that it imposes contemporary notions of love, romance, and marriage onto an ancient historical context that was remarkably different from our own.

    Put simply, men and women of antiquity did not choose to marry for love. In fact, men and women of antiquity did not generally choose their own marriages at all. While Roman law prohibited anyone from being forced into a marriage against his or her will, the vast majority of marriages were arranged by the male head of a family whose goal was to further his household’s social and political standing in the community. So even if Valentine had been secretly marrying young Christians in the ancient Roman empire, he would have done so at their families’ behest (or perhaps to provide an alternative to Roman marriage ceremonies which typically involved the honoring of pagan gods), rather than because he thought love trumps all.

    It is not that bonds of affection or intimacy could not exist between spouses in the ancient world. However, in a society of arranged marriages, a husband and wife sought not romantic love but concordia. That is, the cultural goal of the Greco-Roman marital relationship was harmony, tranquillity, and stability. Marriage based on an emotion as fickle as romantic love wasn’t seen as something good for you. More importantly, it wasn’t good for your family.

    But what about marriage and love for other Christians in other times? Surely they shared our conception of the Valentine’s Day love story as being a genuinely good story?

    It turns out, not so much.

    For example, if you were part of medieval Western European nobility then you could expect your marriage (and potentially also your divorces and remarriages) to be an integral part of your family’s quest to seize, maintain, or regain political power in a world dominated by dangerous dynastic designs. Chances are, though, you and I wouldn’t have been part of the small percentage of nobility in the Middle Ages. Instead, we would have been Christian commoners eking out an agrarian existence. For us, marriage would be primarily about securing a life partner who wasn’t afraid of endless toil. Some of us wouldn’t need to worry about selecting that partner because the local lord would choose one for us. For none of us would marriage be primarily about finding someone who makes our heart sing – unless, of course, their extraordinary aptitude at spinning wool or harvesting a field makes our hearts go pitter-patter! For medieval Christian spouses, shared romantic commitment was nowhere near as good or necessary as a shared commitment to work diligently, harmoniously, and productively as a household unit.

    With the coming of the Reformation, the modern Valentine’s Day comes just a little bit closer. The theology and practices of the Protestant Reformers really did usher in massive changes in the way Christians approached marriage. Prior to this time, marriage had often been spoken of as having two purposes – namely, procreation and acting as a remedy against sexual sin. Gradually, a third purpose of marriage came to the fore, namely the provision of companionship or, as the 1549 Book of Common Prayer puts it, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other.” Christian leaders began to speak of marriage as being intended to meet an individual’s emotional needs. Of course, this did not mean that the Reformers advocated for marriage purely or even primarily because people were “in love.” Marriage was still too important a social, political, economic, and theological relationship to be based on feelings. But they did advocate for people to marry spouses whose characters they respected, because then they could learn to love them.

    It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that romantic love truly began to conquer Western ideas of marriage and, aided by the expressive individualism of the twentieth century, the existential meaning of what it is to be human as well. The (rather complicated) historical development here involves the Industrial Revolution; the separation of the private and public spheres; distinctions between men’s and women’s natures; the expansion of the middle class; the growth of the capitalistic market; and much more. Suffice it to say, the story of romantic love as both the essence of marriage and as a necessity for personal flourishing turns out not to be a classic, timeless, or enduring one. It is a story that has been only a few centuries in the writing.

    But our question was not whether the contemporary Valentine’s Day story is an old story, but whether it is a good one. That we’ve discovered it to be novel to our contemporary moment does not necessarily mean it is bad, let alone bad for us. Indeed, that the majority of men and women in today’s West have the economic, personal, social, political, and religious freedom not only to choose if, who, and why to marry but to marry a person they share a heartfelt emotional connection with is surely a good thing!

    However, a good story always has the potential to turn bad. The danger for us today is not our celebration of romantic love, but rather our temptation to idolize it. When we unhesitatingly affirm the goodness of “marrying for love,” it becomes more difficult for us to affirm the goodness of remaining married when love betrays us. When we value our relationship based on the intensity of how we feel about someone, it becomes ever more probable that we will come to devalue our relationship when the intensity of those feelings wanes. When we make fulfilling our emotional needs a vital purpose of marriage, it becomes ever more likely that we will think our marriage has failed when our spouse fails in that respect. If there is one thing we can be certain of, it’s that our sinfulness means failures will happen.

    Furthermore, when we idolize the Valentine’s Day love story as being necessary for existential flourishing, we disregard the possibility that single people can find happiness. Yet to all men and women God holds out the possibility of deep and abiding nonmarital, nonsexual relationships intended to bring genuine joy and nourishment. When we make the Valentine’s Day story the love story, we inevitably diminish and cheapen the love that singles also long to receive and delight in extending.

    But the greatest danger that comes with idolizing romantic love is that it obscures a better, richer, deeper, and much more satisfying love story. This other story is one in which a husband loves his wife not because of her noble virtues, but despite her poor character. It’s a story in which a husband makes the ultimate sacrifice for his wife not because she merits it, but precisely because she does not. It’s the story of a husband who commits everything to his wife not because she meets his needs, but because he knows he is the only one who can meet hers. It’s the story of a husband – the church’s husband, Jesus – whose adoration is not flimsy or fickle but enduring, eternal, and entirely undeserved. This is love, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

    This is the greatest love story ever written. Let’s not trade it in for a Mills & Boon paperback novel. This Valentine’s Day, let’s celebrate the goodness of love. But more than that, let’s celebrate the love which is truly good for us – the love of a Savior who died for us, lives for us, and waits for us. 

    Contributed By portrait of Dani Treweek Dani Treweek

    Dani Treweek is the author of The Meaning of Singleness and founding director of Single Minded Ministry.

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