A Cross In That Heart

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Valentine’s Day is coming up soon. You can tell that by all those TV ads for chocolate-covered strawberries, giant teddy bears, and sexy lingerie guaranteed to “pay off” for the man who buys it for her. Sigh. I miss those more innocent days of sharing little taste-free candy hearts with pre-Internet messages printed (badly) on them. I miss getting handmade red construction paper cards trimmed in white paper doilies. Valentine’s day glorifies romantic love but I’m afraid we’ve lost the real meaning of the day. We’ve forgotten (if we ever knew) the man behind all those Hallmark cards and heart-shaped candy boxes. He lived so long ago that most people have never heard of him or what he did in his life or why he was killed for doing it.

In the third century, being a Christian in the Roman Empire was enough to get you killed. Mass was celebrated with the ongoing fear of arrest, persecution, and martyrdom. Yet bishops, priests, and deacons continued to proclaim the good news of the Gospel every day. The tension between faith and government (sound familiar?) was a deadly one and it produced men and women of heroic virtue and faith—we call them “saints.” One of these was a priest named Valentine. At that time, the Emperor Claudius had his hands full with an empire that was both vast and constantly at war. He needed large numbers of reliable fighting men to keep his legions strong and he had discovered that married men made the best warriors. Men with wives and children had divided loyalties and so Claudius decreed that marriage was illegal. He thought that forbidding young couples to marry would solve his recruitment problem. But it didn’t turn out to be so simple. Young Christian couples continued to believe in the Sacrament of marriage. They believed that marriage was a path to holiness, ordained by God. And so they sought out priests and asked to be married in defiance of the Emperor and in glory to the Lord. Brave priests like Valentine celebrated the Sacrament with them and he paid the ultimate price. Claudius ordered Valentine arrested and imprisoned. He was beaten, stoned, and finally beheaded in 269 A.D.

His martyrdom became a part of Church history and was remembered each year on February 14. His life stands for so very much more than chocolates and greeting cards. St. Valentine reminds us that there comes a time in each of our lives when we have to decide what is important—even important enough to die for. He was willing to lay down his life to preserve the sanctity of marriage and the freedom to practice the Catholic faith as handed down from the Apostles. St. Valentine’s day may have come to glorify the sometimes-fleeting human emotions of romantic love. But his real legacy lies in reminding us that true love is a sacrifice. Look at a crucifix. Christ’s love for you and for me is sacrificial love through which He gave everything in order to save us from our sins. Without sacrifice, love is self-serving. It’s the love found in that sexy lingerie commercial that promises a “big pay-off.” True love calls us out of ourselves and that is always painful. We deny ourselves for the sake of the beloved. We put our own needs and wants in service of the needs and wants of the one we love. This is a love that gives without counting the cost. St. Valentine gave everything to protect the Sacrament of marriage and every married couple is asked to do the same thing when they profess their vows to one another.

Love is God’s gift to us of Himself. He blesses and sanctifies marriage as a vocation of love. Yet true love, as revealed by the Cross, is a serious commitment. When you buy those flowers and candy this week, remember the price that real love requires of us—not less than everything.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on it’s own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
—I Corinthians 13:4-8

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