1500 years ago, Christians began to celebrate the life of a priest. This priest had died as a martyr, that is, a witness to Christ. He had died sometime in the 300s CE.
Many stories were told about this saint. Some said he married Christian women and men in secret, in the days when it wasn't popular to follow Christ. Others claimed that he healed a blind girl, with whom he later exchanged letters. Still others recount that his martyrdom came about because he tried to convince Emperor Claudius II to follow Christ. Claudius, furious over what he considered an exploitation of their burgeoning friendship, had this priest beaten with clubs and stoned outside of Rome.
These are the stories told about this saint. His name was Valentinus (as you might have guessed by now). But the truth is, we do not know if any of these events occurred. Realistically, even with these stories, the best we can say about St. Valentinus is that he was a faithful priest. His actions are not overwhelmingly impressive. He didn't part any seas or slay any dragons. He didn't command huge armies or write enduring theological treatises.
All we know is that Valentinus did something that pointed to the impact of God's love in his life. I call people like Valentinus 'quiet saints.' These people don't do things for the fanfare. They don't care about the size of the impact they make. They simply love others because God loves them. And they show that love in simple, quiet, everyday ways. These saints remind us that love exists between people, at the level of the personal, when I look you in the eye and see your joys and your struggles. This love lives when I make the choice to stand beside you to face these joys and struggles, big or small.
Valentinus reminds me of this passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 2:26-31)
God doesn’t call people because they have a lot of money or because they are smart, or because they are popular or powerful. God invites people from all walks of life. God even calls the people who think they are nothing. God pursues the people who think they have nothing to give.
At the youth group where I've walked alongside young people for the last six years, I like to draw attention to this mosaic of Jesus on the back wall of our meeting room. Jesus demonstrated his love for us by dying on a cross. We consider that a huge gesture nowadays. And Jesus did once say, "No one has greater love than this: to lay down one's life for a friend." (John 15:13) But, back in Jesus’ day, dying on a cross was actually the lowliest thing someone could do. To die on a cross meant that you were a criminal, an outcast, someone other people wanted to forget. Jesus means a lot to us now, but back when he was alive, in the grand scheme of things, he didn’t seem that impressive. He was from a small town in a small country on the far edge of the known world. He died like a criminal, at a young age. To most people, he seemed like a failure. The majority of history books from Jesus’ time don’t even mention his name.
But, he made a real difference in the life of twelve men and four or five women. He had surrounded himself with common fishermen, a few radical protestors, a tax collector, his mother, his friends' mothers, a few widows and other women. They knew that he had died for them because he loved them. They knew that his love extended from the poorest widow to the richest priest. They knew that he didn’t care if you were rich or poor, wise or foolish, strong or weak. He loved everyone he came in contact with. His love wasn't fluffy or fading. Sometimes that love put him into conflict with people who were in power. That love led him to challenge those who were hurting others. He died as a consequence of that love.
But he also rose again, to show that love is stronger than death. And so, those twelve men and four or five women began to tell Jesus’ story and to live the love that he lived. And slowly, very slowly, they began to make a difference in their world. And, centuries after they had died, the stories they told about Jesus inspired a guy named Valentinus to love. And he loved in small, simple ways.
Because of Jesus’ love, we are inspired to love others, not because we are strong or rich
or powerful or smart. No. We love because we know that we are loved and we want others to experience that love. And this love isn't about romance or sweep-you-off-your-feet gestures. It's about choosing, every day, to look people in the eye and to stand by their side.
Also, here's a great Valentine's day card. Tongue firmly in cheek.