The history of Saint Valentine is somewhat shrouded in history. In fact Valentinus was a common enough name that there are at least three different Saint Valentines, one of them a bishop. Generally, the one that has to do with February 14 is Saint Valentine of Rome in the third century, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. Again, his history is shrouded because of the destruction of the persecutions in Rome during and after his time. But, the story that has come down can be summarized as:
The Roman Empire was experiencing massive turmoil at the time. Dubbed the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’ by scholars, this period saw the empire divide into three competing states, with the threat of invasion all around. Claudius made the unpopular decision to ban marriage among young people, believing that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers. With the Roman Empire hanging by a thread, Claudius needed all the brazen war power he could get. This is where Valentine comes in; the pesky priest who believed marriage to be a God-given sacrament. Valentine began officiating marriages in secret but was eventually found out and imprisoned.
He was eventually beheaded. A couple of the stories say that this is because he made the mistake of trying to convert the Emperor. The Emperor was not amused.
Here is another bit on him:
In the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three-part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation all because of his stand for Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius’ daughter. He inspired today’s romantic missives by signing it, “from your Valentine.”
“What Valentine means to me as a priest,” explains Father O’Gara, “is that there comes a time where you have to lay your life upon the line for what you believe. And with the power of the Holy Spirit we can do that — even to the point of death.”
In America we love to take heroic figures, both Christian and non-Christian, and give them the “Disney treatment.” We turn them into big-eyed, model-beautiful, almost empty-minded creatures and reduce their heroic stories to cute stories of adventure, friendship, and love, in which evil never really wins any battles. Their heroic stance only ends up costing them a little discomfort for a short time, and then everything turns out OK. In fact, we miss the message of their lives. And, if too much of their life has too much message then we simply change their history. So, the Pocahontas of history, who sailed with her husband back to England becomes the Pocahontas of Disney, who “stays strong” and remains in America. The Saint Nicholas who was tortured for the faith and was also a generous man who did give charity to the needy becomes the fat man with a belly like a bowl full of jelly who could not have possibly stood up to any degree of persecution. And so history is reduced to palatable tales.
But, think about Saint Valentine. And, when you write, “from your Valentine,” think about it as a commitment to follow Christ to the end, as a commitment to support marriage as the proper expression of Christian love, as a commitment to give of yourself lovingly.