Now enter the lover in love, long venerated by poets and rhapsodes of all stripes, starting with the lyrical Lesbian, Sappho herself. The lover who tries to leave reason in control, she warns, does not follow her god to the end. It is the very chaos of love, the swirl of love, that may link our modern Romantic musings to the Greeks—mediated to us, ironically enough, by the martyr-rolls of the early churches.

There is also a Roman residue to this eminently modern holiday, the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, held on the Ides of February (February 13-15). Recall Shakespeare once again: it was during the Lupercalia, he imagined, that Julius Caesar was offered an emperor's crown and refused it three times. Just one month later, during the Ides of March, he lost his life in a bloody hail of daggers. Loving is linked to dying.

While we know little about it, the Lupercalia seems to have been a curious Latin festival with mysterious Greek origins. Later Roman writers like Plutarch suggested that it originated in Arcadia in southern Greece, where Lykaian Pan was worshiped (lykos is the Greek word for wolf). The Roman poet Virgil would turn that same Arcadia into an ideal image of Paradise, a lost Golden Age of musical shepherds and right religion, in a marvelous cycle of poems called "The Eclogues" (or "The Bucolics"). Some later Christians felt that Virgil had predicted the birth of Christ in one of them; more likely it was a reference to the birth of Octavian, later Caesar Augustus.

In any case, this mysterious rural Greek festival took a more elaborate form in the city of Rome. The Greek god Lykaian Pan becomes Lupercus (lupos being the Latin term for wolf). A cave below the Palatine Hill was identified as the very spot where the twins, Romulus and Remus, were nursed by the she-wolf of Rome, one of the most famous of Rome's founding myths and images. In mid-February, several patrician priests called "Luperci" would go to the Lupercal Cave and bring the half-naked statue of Lupercus into public view. They would sacrifice two goats and one dog, while the Vestal Virgins offered vegetarian cakes.

After a feast the Luperci would run around the Palatine, dressed in the fresh skins and flagellating the crowds with the sacrificial sinews. Such a beating was believed to promote fertility in the women of Rome. This is all according to the report of an early Christian philosopher, Justin the Martyr, no great lover of pagan culture or pagan holidays.

Four centuries later, with Christianity established as the state religion of the empire, Christian emperors shut down all such pagan holidays and pagan shows.  So the romantic Greco-Roman party was over. Or was it? Was it really over? And was it really a party to begin with?

Important symbolic convergences suggest the opposite. Love and violence were always joined. This may help to explain the logic of this fascinating pagan-Christian juxtaposition of February 14. Pagans and Christians need not always be at war. Several of their images overlap in significant and interesting ways. Think of Mary the Mother of Sorrows, with her desperate look and bleeding heart. Is she grieving over the martyrdom of her son? Or is she a powerful image of the tragic element in all such loving attachment?

Love and loss: they were always thought together in Greece and Rome. Cupid's Greek name is Eros, and he is armed with a bow and arrow; this was a real and lethal weapon in the ancient world. Romantic loving is linked to dying in tragedy even more than in comedy. The lover in love can be a martyr just as surely as a courageous priest or martyr. Eros and Agape are not two diametrically opposed forms of human loving. Those Renaissance artists in Italy who became fascinated with the juxtaposition of "Sacred and Profane Love" knew this well. Consider too their renewed fascination with a highly eroticized Saint Sebastian—now there's an arrow in the heart.

To be sure, Saint Valentine's Day is not a Christian holiday in any real sense, certainly not in a Protestant culture that has done away with saints and their feasts. But the lingering spiritual impulse of romantic love, an impulse given powerful new life by Romanticism, is visible and very close to the surface of our celebration. Self-giving love is self-giving whether it is framed as passionately romantic or self-sacrificial. There is a rich poetic tradition that speaks of the martyrdom of all romantic love. We are called to give ourselves to the lover as one gives oneself to the god. Loss of self and self-fulfillment are twinned gestures and composite experiences.

While often perceived simply as a holiday designed to serve the luxury market, and to remind those who are single of their lostness and isolation, I have never seen it so. It is a rich and sometimes lyrical reminder of the power and the danger and the rare mystery of love in all its forms.

This article was first published at Religion Dispatches, a Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.