Today is Valentine’s Day, a day of chocolates, flowers and mushy cards. OK, that sounds a little cynical, it’s just that the expressions of love that accompany this day do seem to have a very predictable, and thus one wonders how authentic the feeling behind it is, feel. A partner rushes to a store, buys something red or flowery or sentimental, and gives it to their partner. Another Valentine’s Day, another sale for a florist or candy store. OK, that is cynical.
From a Christian point of view there is another angle to this day and it involves the Saint whose name we associate with February 14th. Valentine lived in Rome during the third century during the reign of the emperor Claudius. Claudius wanted to have a big army. He expected men to volunteer to join. Many men just did not want to fight in wars. They did not want to leave their wives and families. As you might have guessed, not many men signed up. This made Claudius furious. So what happened? He had a crazy idea. He thought that if men were not married, they would not mind joining the army. So Claudius decided not to allow any more marriages. Young people thought his new law was cruel. Valentine was a priest. After Emperor Claudius passed his law Valentine kept on performing marriage ceremonies -- secretly, of course.
Eventually Valentine was thrown in jail for performing marriages and told that the punishment was death. While in prison many young people came to the jail to visit Valentine. They threw flowers and notes up to his window. One of these young people was the daughter of the prison guard. Her father allowed her to visit me in the cell. Sometimes they would sit and talk for hours. This daughter helped Valentine to keep his spirits up. She agreed that Valentine did the right thing by ignoring the Emperor and going ahead with the secret marriages. On the day Valentine was to die, he left his young friend a little note thanking her for her friendship and loyalty. He signed it, "Love from your Valentine."
Many believe that note started the custom of exchanging love messages on Valentine's Day. It was written on the day Valentine died, February 14, 269 A.D. Now, every year on this day, people remember. But most importantly, they think about love and friendship. And when they think of Emperor Claudius, they remember how he tried to stand in the way of love, and they laugh -- because they know that love can't be beaten!
So on this day I don’t think of florists and candy store owners having a good day of sales (though I am indeed happy for them), instead I think of all those who have had their love denied and ridiculed and looked down on by the powers of the world. Of course I am thinking in particular of the way governments, backed by churches, have denied for generations the love of same gender couples who wanted their union recognized by society as normative and authentic and just. That moment has finally come and our communities are the better for it. The church is the better for it.
And so on this day I think of all those who, when this cause was not so popular or certain, wrote little cards of encouragement to leaders who were sticking their necks out for love, to let them know that love could not be denied. To all of you who stood for love and justice with words of encouragement I say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!”