During a recent walk on the Greenbelt, I came across bright red paper hearts hanging on gates, fences and trees. Each one of these homemade hearts contained a message of encouragement such as “Never Give Up,” “Happiness isn’t getting what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got,” and “Love Never Fails.” It warmed my heart, that someone had taken the time and energy to lift the spirits of neighbors and strangers who would see these valentines while out walking or biking.
When I was a campus minister years ago, one of my colleagues moved from Hawaii to Iowa City where we served together at Lutheran Campus Ministry. One of the things that surprised him was how much Valentine’s Day was celebrated in the Midwest. It was never a big deal in Hawaii, but in Iowa the advertising in stores began right after Christmas with the displays of heart-shaped candy boxes, cards, candles, cookies and other gifts. His theory was that it was a way to break the long winter months—something they didn’t have to deal with in the tropics. Valentine’s Day was a happy celebration of love which helped sustain people amidst the dark and cold reality.
My colleague may have been right, but Valentine’s Day may not always be a happy time for everyone. For some it may intensify their sadness of not being in a relationship. For others it may intensify the loneliness they feel within an unhappy relationship. For many it may bring guilt induced pressure to buy the right gift. But perhaps the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day is by remembering its origins.
The legend of St. Valentine goes back to the year 270 C.E. in Rome. It all began with the emperor’s decree banning marriage in the Roman Empire. Marriage, he thought, would distract men from soldiering and he needed soldiers to keep his empire intact. The priest Valentine, however, defied the emperor and secretly married couples who came to him. Inevitably he was caught and imprisoned. While in prison he befriended the jailer’s daughter, Julia, helping in her schooling as her teacher. On February 14 Valentine received an offer of clemency from the emperor with a choice. Either renounce Christ, worship Claudius and the Roman gods and live, or face beating, stoning and then beheading. Committed to remaining faithful to Christ to the end, Valentine sent a final message to Julia. In it he encouraged her to stay close to Christ, and then signed his letter “Your Valentine.” Soon afterward he went to his death, becoming a martyr in the church.
This year Valentine’s Day is also the day we observe in the church year as Transfiguration of our Lord. In a vision of light and sound, Jesus gives his disciples a glimpse of his glory. It’s a sign to strengthen them when they descend the mountain and go back into a cold, dark reality. A sign to keep them following Jesus all the way to the cross. A sign of encouragement to stay close to Christ and the way of love, trusting that love never fails.
“For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Let us pray...
Gracious God, shine the light of your love into our hearts, strengthening us to stay close to Christ as we follow the way of Christ’s love. Amen.