When people ask about my heroes, I tell them I have a few favorites. Steve McQueen and John Wayne are at the top of the heap. But I have a new one to add: St. Valentine, and not for the reasons most might imagine. St. Valentine was amazingly courageous, and we should follow his model.
Valentine’s Day today might be about romance, cards, poetry and flowers, but to the originator of the holiday, St. Valentine, it was more about grit than glamor. He was a culture warrior in his day and even battled against dictators in government until they killed him for his conservative views.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus – better known as Claudius II, Claudius Gothicus, or Claudius the Cruel – was Roman emperor from A.D. 268 to 270. He had built a strong and battle-worthy Roman army, but was having difficulty recruiting soldiers. He believed the reason for their unwillingness to serve and sacrifice for the crown centered around their commitments to their wives and families. So, Claudius outlawed engagements and marriages in Rome! Can you imagine?
Along came a Roman priest, Valentine, who rebelled against the emperor’s orders. Valentine not only cared for the troops but was also pro-marriage. His willingness to go to bat for young military personnel was reflective of their own willingness to sacrifice life and limb for the Empire.
History.com explained: “Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.”
In addition to rebelling against the emperor’s decree, Father Frank O’Gara of Whitefriars Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, explained to CBN what other cultural walls Valentine was standing up against: “I think we must bear in mind that it was a very permissive society in which Valentine lived. Polygamy would have been much more popular than just one woman and one man living together. And yet some of them seemed to be attracted to Christian faith. But obviously, the church thought that marriage was very sacred between one man and one woman for their life and that it was to be encouraged. And so it immediately presented the problem to the Christian church of what to do about this.”
Valentine’s pro-marriage advocacy and actions were eventually found out, and he was imprisoned and tortured.
As History detailed, “When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. The sentence was carried out on Feb. 14, on or about the year 270.”
Before he was killed, legend tells us that Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it: “From Your Valentine.”
I agree with what Father O’Gara said about what Valentine’s life and influence should still mean for us today: “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.”
Valentine, like most of America’s founders, knew something to the core of his being: If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. His passion reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s comment at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
So, what would St. Valentine do if he were alive today? I believe he would not be afraid of standing for what today would be the most conservative of causes, and doing so with the God-given right of freedom of speech even if it offended others.
Father O’Gara again explained: “If Valentine were here today, he would say to married couples that there comes a time where you’re going to have to suffer. It’s not going to be easy to maintain your commitment and your vows in marriage. Don’t be surprised if the ‘gushing’ love that you have for someone changes to something less ‘gushing’ but maybe much more mature. And the question is, is that young person ready for that?”
There’s a reason that leaders like Valentine and America’s founders were venerated in their day and ours, and it’s far more than just about love, freedom and legislation. It’s about the character and resolve these leaders modeled, and the courage they repeatedly showed to go against the flow. It’s also about their perseverance to do the right thing – to stand up and be counted and never give up.
Speaking of great cultural heroes on Valentine’s Day, I consider myself one of the most fortunate men alive to be married to one of the finest in the world: my wife, Gena. She’s at the heart of my heart, nonprofit work, enterprises and patriotic efforts for God and country. Most of all, her passion for love, marriage and family has been a constant model for me as well.
In Bishop Robert F. Morneau’s book, “Humility: 31 Reflections on Christian Virtue,” he wrote: “In the garden of the soul, the virtues of faith, hope, and love form the centerpiece. Traditionally called theological virtues, they come as free gifts from God and draw us to God. We cannot earn these virtues; God has already freely planted them in our soul.”
Or as the most famous 19th century Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, simply put it: “Love a friend, a wife, whatever you like. Then, you will know there is a God.”
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