Holidays and Holy Days
V-Day: An Arrow in the Heart
It is this linkage of love and violent loss that bears thinking about. It is an interest and a romantic preoccupation that Greek Christians and Greek pagans shared.
More confusing still is the Greek Orthodox liturgical calendar, since in it, February 14 is the feast day for no fewer than four major saints.
The first is Saint Auxentius who was originally from Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey, and who was appointed as bishop of Milan in 355 C.E. despite the fact that he could not speak Latin, only Greek. Though constantly harassed by accusations of heresy (Valentinianism, no less), he remained at his post until his death in 373 C.E. The Ides of February seem to make it harder to draw a sharp line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
The second is Saint Maro, who was a close friend to John Chrysostom, the celebrated and "golden-tongued" bishop of Syrian Antioch. Saint Maro gave his name to the movement of "Maronite" Christians, a group that celebrates an eastern liturgy composed by Chrysostom but that recognizes the political leadership of the bishop of Rome. They are prominent still in parts of Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus. The Ides of February seem to make it harder to draw a sharp line between Eastern and Western Christianity as well.
The third is Saint George of Mytilene, hailing from the Greek island of Lesbos. The erotic charge of that hometown calls the ancient Greek poet Sappho to mind, as well as the debates about the meaning of the word "lesbian," then and now. If Sappho was a passionate lover of women, and if she hailed from the island of Lesbos, then perhaps a Lesbian is a woman whose primary erotic attention is devoted to other women. And if a saint hailed from her hometown, well then the Ides of February seem to make it harder to draw a sharp line between pagan and Christian, between homoerotic and heteroerotic forms of passionate romantic love.
How then, given this vast confusion of Greco-Roman and hagiography and martyrs' lists, has this day come to be celebrated as the global holiday for lovers, unmarried and married alike?
Geoffrey Chaucer seems to have been one of the first to write about Saint Valentine's Day as if it were associated with the cult of romantic love. Chaucer, of course, was also the first great poet in the English vernacular, refusing to submit to the cultural domination of ecclesiastical Latin. And with this declaration of independence of the secular tongue, came the semi-secularization of the sacred Christian calendar. To be sure, marriage had always been the most secular of the church's seven sacraments.
Long before Juliet finally confessed it, the lover in the first blush of excitement was always thought to be dangerously distracted and already half a pagan. "You are the god of my idolatry," Juliet gasps. Saint Paul had worried about this a long time earlier in several of his letters, urging those Christians who could not be celibate to get themselves married before real romantic passion entered the picture and threatened to unseat the soul.
These days, of course, and under the lingering pulse of Romanticism, we revel in that very unseating, and are expected to thank our lover for it with all manner of gifts, ranging from chocolates to flowers to dinner to diamonds.
How have we gone from a beheaded priest to a giddy worldwide day of romantic love? In a word: the widespread conviction that love is a dizzying sacrifice.
If we ponder the primary Valentine's Day symbol, a human heart pierced by an arrow, then the connection may be easier to see. Jesus himself had famously warned that if you wish to find your life you'll need to lose it first. Many a Romantic artist has said the same: the self must clear out for the spirit of creativity to enter. Loss of self is perceived as fulfillment of self.
Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The author of six books, his two most recent are: God Gardened East: A Gardener's Meditation on the Dynamics of Genesis (Wipf and Stock, 2008) and This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity (Jossey-Bass, 2008).