Of Martyrs And Marshmallows

A California pet store is offering the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for the person who has everything: designer hermit crabs. The crabs’ shells have been hand-dipped in 24-karat gold. Well, anything for a buck. Gold-plated crustaceans are indeed an offbeat gift idea for a holiday on which we celebrate romantic love. But how many of us know that Valentine’s Day began as a symbol of Christian love? Early church records are sketchy, but it’s believed that actually several men named Valentine were martyred in the third century A.D. This was during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II, a ruler known for his brutal persecution of Christians. One of these Valentines was a priest who secretly married couples against the wishes of Claudius, who believed that unmarried men made better soldiers. Two other Valentines—a priest and a bishop—were beheaded by Claudius late in the third century. Historians are not certain which Valentine began to be celebrated on February 14. But they are certain why the church chose that day. You see, in ancient Rome, February 14 was the eve of a pagan festival called Lupercalia. During this festival, the Romans worshipped Februa, a goddess of marriage, childbirth, and sexuality. Brian Bates, a professor at the University of Sussex, is an expert on how we celebrate holidays. Bates writes that during Lupercalia, "young men and women drew lots for sexual partners, in preparation for a day of sanctioned license the following day." As Christianity spread throughout the ancient world, the church began replacing pagan festivals with holy days. In an effort to control the lewder aspects of the Lupercalian festival, the church fathers replaced this pagan holiday with the feast of Saint Valentine, in honor of one of the martyred Christians. Instead of drawing the names of sexual partners out of a box, young men were encouraged to pick the names of saints—and then spend the following year emulating the saint whose name they drew. The focus on love lingered on, but was sanctified from mere sexual license to chaste romantic love. Not surprisingly, the romantic aspect is what became popular, not the more austere love of the Christian martyr. Now, it’s fun to exchange gifts with our sweethearts, and I’d be the last person to ask you to sacrifice Valentine’s Day. And I won’t ask you to give up reading love poems and substitute meditating on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. But we ought to take a moment to remember the early Christian saints, as well, and how their martyrdom dramatically illustrates their love for God. In the midst of our romantic celebrations, we should remind ourselves that for Christians, the love between husband and wife is meant to reflect the love between God and His church. Throughout the Scriptures, the imagery of the love between a husband and wife is perhaps the most compelling symbol of the relationship between God and His people. So while we’re buying those roses, chocolates—or maybe even one of those gold-plated hermit crabs—we ought to remind ourselves and our kids about the Author of all love: not Hollywood or Hallmark cards, but God Himself.


Chuck Colson



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