The Origins of Valentine’s Day
Only Connect is my favourite gameshow. It is lesser known than Pointless or The Chase, but I find it endlessly interesting; finding the connection between four seemingly unconnected clues. I see myself as a bit of an expert (I’m totally self-deluded in this respect) but even I would have difficulty in connecting ‘red roses’ and ‘goat skin’. In fact both are Valentine’s Day traditions – a holiday which plagues both the single and taken, yet which we succumb to nonetheless. But aside from the practical and social issues (affording an appropriate present or binging on Netflix and pizza while lamenting your ‘forever alone’ status) the Valentine’s Day tradition can conflict with our faith. It has, since its very origins, attempted to fill our need for a perfect, heavenly and eternal love with imperfect human effort.
The tradition was cemented by the Roman Catholic Church, probably for two reasons. The first was to overshadow and replace the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, celebrated 13-15th February. To begin the festival, priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. These sacrifices were an attempt to make God’s blessings earthly and human. We don’t need to sacrifice goats: God makes dry bones come alive with his spirit (Ezekiel 37); he transforms a “formless and empty” void into a beautiful planet heaving with vitality (Genesis 1); he makes fertile the barren wombs of elderly women (Genesis 18, Luke 1); he even raises his son from the dead! (John 20)
And we don’t need to sacrifice dogs either; God promises that through the sacrifice of Jesus “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). We are made spotless and pure because of Jesus, a perfect sacrifice who cleanses us of the poison of sin. And this is good, completely satisfying and totally fulfilling news! We don’t need to be slapped with goat skin to receive purification (yes they really did this, naked in the streets…), we don’t need to do anything. Jesus has done it all.
The second reason for the formalisation of Valentine’s Day was to honour St. Valentine. Unfortunately, there were loads of Valentines, so I’ll pick out the most poignant. One legend says that Valentine was a priest who performed secret marriages after Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, and outlawed marriage for young men. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. It seems to me that, especially amongst Christians, we tend to idolise marriage. We see it as a “happily ever after” moment that guarantees us a lifetime of consistent and vibrant romantic love. Sadly, this is not the case; recent statistics show that 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. Why? Because putting two sinful, imperfect people together does not equate to perfection. In order to create lasting relationships, we need to stop idolising marriage, realise it’s imperfect, and look towards the perfect marriage between Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5, Paul tells “Husbands [to] love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Problems arise when we expect this perfection in a fallen world, with another fallen person. When we step back from idolising our loved one, and instead look, together, to Jesus for fulfilment and joy, only then will we find happiness and contentment in relationships.
Of course, the flaws in today’s Valentine’s Day traditions are surely much greater. Everyone knows about the rampant consumerism, attitude of romantic comparison, impossible expectations and idolised romance. But I believe that we can celebrate and enjoy Valentine’s Day when we praise God not only for our earthly relationships, but our perfect, heavenly relationship with Him.