Valentine's Day is today symbolised by roses and chocolates, hearts and romance. For florists and chocolate shops, it's the high point of the retail year. For lovers, it is the day to express their love in a special (and often public) way. It's hard to imagine that it all began when a Roman emperor decided to prohibit marriage.
Very little is known about the original Valentine. The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who said Valentine was among those: "Whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God."
He may have been a priest in Rome or a bishop of Interamna (modern Terni). He is said to be buried on the Flaminia Consular Way. The ancient Flaminian Gate was once called the Gate of Saint Valentine, probably from a small nearby church.
So how did a martyred priest or bishop become the patron saint of lovers? It apparently all started with the imperial policies of Claudius II. Although he was Emperor for only a few years from 268 to 270, his reign has not gone unnoticed.
During his reign he fought successfully against the Alamanni and scored a crushing victory against the Goths at the Battle of Naissus. As a result he was also called Claudius Gothicus. He died after succumbing to small pox.
The wars conducted by Claudius II proved to be a significant drain on the man-power of Rome. More and more young men were needed for the battle field. It was noticed that unmarried soldiers were far more efficient and more fearless than those who were married and more so, with a family.
Unattached men fought without thinking too much about those they'd leave behind if the worst happened.
As a consequence, marriage was made illegal by Claudius II.
Valentine was greatly opposed to this decree. He worked with St Marius and his supporters and found ways to circumnavigate this terrible law against God and mankind.
He kept-on marrying young couples. Valentine realised that love was too great a passion to be disposed of in such a ruthless decree. Needless to say, Valentine was eventually caught and sent to prison. As being a Christian was illegal at that time as well, Valentine's law-breaking was regarded as a double betrayal. He was clubbed, stoned and then beheaded on 14 February 270 in Rome, only months before the emperor himself died of small pox.
According to tradition, while Valentine waited in prison for his execution, he corresponded with those under his care. He sent letters and love notes to his parishioners. It is also said that while incarcerated, he fell in love with a young woman who visited him.
She is sometimes identified as Julia the blind daughter of Asterius, the jailer. Her sight was miraculously restored by God through Valentine. Popular belief indicates that his farewell message to her, closed with words that have now transcended time: "From Your Valentine."
In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius declared 14 February to be the Feast Day of Saint Valentine. Saint Valentine was made the patron saint of lovers and engaged couples, with particular oversight of quarrels between sweethearts (little wonder many Roman Catholic folk consider him the most exhausted and busiest Saint of all).
As history and legend blend together, we see in this example, how Valentine has deeply marked our folklore with a combination of Christian faith, strong community leadership, common decency, and ultimately martyrdom for the Lord he loved and served. This is how many around the world remember Valentine.
It is in such ways, that God too speaks to His children everywhere in every generation. Such examples of inspiration as Valentine challenge us afresh.
Moreover, none of us know where faith in Christ will lead. Imagine, that it might be something that I do (or you), that will affect the lives of ordinary people going about their business, 1,700 years from now! No one knows the consequences of faith in action.
Paul wrote: "Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory." (Ephesians 3:20)