The Heart and the Skull: St. Valentine’s Day and Christian Love as Martyrdom

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“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Valentine’s Day has been called a shallow, vain, and commercialized holiday—a silly excuse to charge exorbitant prices for flowers and chocolate. If something can be exploited for money, someone will find a way. But in a world of broken marriages and self-centered relationships, I’m happy to set aside a day each year to give special expression to my love and gratitude for precious loved ones.

Moreover, the commercialization of Valentine’s Day provides Christians with a unique opportunity to point the world to true love, something that is far deeper than flowers, candy hearts, and Hallmark cards. And as we look at the Christian history of Valentine’s Day, we are reminded that true love is marked by a surprising theme: Death. Or, to be more specific, martyrdom. The skull, as much as the heart, is the symbol of Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine the Martyr

Valentine’s Day was originally called Saint Valentine’s Day. It was set aside by the church to honor a third-century martyr named Valentine. A martyr is someone who dies for their beliefs. It is commonly held that St. Valentine was arrested by the Romans, beaten by clubs, and beheaded for his faith on February 14, AD 270. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be in possession of his skull, which is covered in flowers and kept at a church in Rome, Italy.

It is easy to admire the great Christian martyrs, but it is far harder to follow their example by embracing martyrdom as a way of life.

Not much is known about Valentine, although his life is surrounded by charming legends. Some claim that he oversaw secret marriages that were forbidden by Rome to control the population of Christians. Another common story is that while under arrest, he healed the eyesight of a blind girl, leading to the conversion of her father and his entire household. Even less likely is that when Valentine was awaiting execution, he wrote a letter to the girl whom he had healed, signed, “From your Valentine.”

In fact, the feast of St. Valentine the Martyr likely took on romantic significance because of a fourteenth-century love poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. In “The Parliament of Fowls,” a poem celebrating the engagement of King Richard II, Chaucer alluded to Saint Valentine’s Day as a time of the year when birds choose their mates:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

Centuries later, St. Valentine the Martyr is all but forgotten. His holy day has been replaced by a holiday that is mostly secular. But for Christians, love and martyrdom are inseparable themes. 

True Love Dies

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).

St. Valentine the Martyr is all but forgotten. But for Christians, love and martyrdom are inseparable themes.

True love is signed with blood. True love takes up its cross daily. True love dies to sin and self-interest. It is put to the test in the daily grind, when I am faced with the choice between what I want and what is good for others. It is easy to admire the great Christian martyrs, but it is far harder to follow their example by embracing martyrdom as a way of life. What if we treated

  • Marriage as martyrdom. In Ephesians 5, Paul expounds Genesis 2:24: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31–32). Sexual union symbolizes spiritual union. Just as he who is joined to a woman becomes one flesh with her (Gen. 2:24), “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17). This is why husbands ought to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Christ “gave” himself by dying. We are easily offended by “Wives, submit,” but we easily forget that Paul says, “Husbands, die.” Dying for one’s wife does not mean, “If an intruder comes, I’ll get my shotgun and go out in a blaze of glory protecting my family.” It means, “I’ll seek my wife’s best interests, even above my own.” It is about foot-washing in the daily grind more than it is about a flurry of bullets. This means death to self-centeredness. And as a friend once said, “There’s nothing like marriage to show you how selfish you are.” It’s painful. It’s martyrdom.
  • Ministry as martyrdom. Tertullian famously said, “The blood of Christians is seed.” It’s sometimes quoted as, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The early church did not grow by grasping at power or taking up Caesar’s sword. It grew by dying. Christian ministry should not be viewed as a path to self-fulfillment, but as an opportunity to die for the good of others. As Paul said, “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31).  Effective ministry is self-sacrificial. It’s martyrdom.
  • Politics as martyrdom. The early Christians respected earthly rulers and submitted to their authority, recognizing that Jesus was the true and only Lord who reigns over all. They simply continued to do what God had commanded them. When they were charged to stop preaching, “they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:4). When religious persecution came their way, they did not resist. They did not lose their minds. They gladly accepted their prison sentences, like Paul and Silas who converted the Philippian jailer by singing hymns and praising God at midnight. They went peacefully to their deaths, like Polycarp who invited his Roman captors to dine at his table before they took him to be burned. They took Jesus’s words seriously: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Mt. 5:10). They embraced martyrdom as a prime opportunity to witness to God’s heavenly love. What does the world see today? Does America see a church that embraces the spirit of martyrdom? Or do our neighbors see a church that is desperately grasping for political power, trying to hang on to the status quo, losing their heads over the loss of religious liberty?

For Christians, love and martyrdom are inseparable themes. So this Valentine’s Day, remember the flower-covered skull of St. Valentine. And above all, remember Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Christ shows his love for us by dying for the ungodly. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.