According to Christian tradition, in the third century Saint Valentine, a priest of Rome, refused to apostatize and, moreover, attempted to convert the Roman emperor Claudius Gothicus. Naturally, this bold effort led to his subsequent execution. Before his death, though, it is reported that Valentine healed Julia, the daughter of his jailer, and converted his entire forty-four person household to faith in Christ. It is the death of this saint, along with several others in the early centuries, that Christians have historically commemorated on Valentine’s Day.
Obviously, the focus of February 14th has changed. By at least the fourteenth century, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about birds mating on Valentine’s Day for the anniversary of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, the day had become associated with romantic love. And today, Valentine’s memorializes the spending of $13.3 billion, the sharing of over 180 million cards (plus cards exchanged by elementary students), and the conceiving of over 11,000 children.
I’d be hesitant to say there is anything inherently wrong with the love-holiday. It’s generally fun for those in relationships and for children who love chalk-candy. It is no longer, however, a day for the martyrs.
In almost every branch of the Christian faith, there is a reverence for the holy sacrament of baptism. It is even regarded by some as the pinnacle practice of the faith. In baptism, God has given his disciples the unique ability to transform.
Beyond offering salvation†, baptism is able to take something and completely reverse it, bending it to the will of God. In this way, Christian baptism is not only the washing away of sins but a metamorphosis of all it touches.
I once heard this sacred power illustrated through the first chapter of The Silmarillion, “Ainulindalë.” In Tolkien’s creation narrative, the deity Eru Ilúvatar teaches his children, the Ainur, the art of music and eventually reveals to them his grand plan for a collaborative symphony. However, when one of the Ainur, Melkor, is introduced to the symphony, he attempts to ruin it through his loud and vain music. Nonetheless, Ilúvatar takes Melkor’s contribution, and with it he completes his great song and—in so doing—completes the creation of the physical world, Arda. When it is finished, Ilúvatar takes his children to Arda and shows them the beautiful thing their music has made.
In the character of Ilúvatar, Tolkien demonstrates how our God will seize upon the corrupt and faulted work of his creation, and with it he will make something grander and more pristine than we could ever do on our own. If we let him, he baptizes the work of our hands, plunges it deep, and raises it new and beautiful.
For 2000 years, Christianity has been in the process of baptizing culture—in Christmas and Easter traditions, wedding rings, and ceremonial burial; in art, music, and architecture; in philosophy and the very notion of a soul—in everything, Christianity has been taking what the world has to offer and making it sacred.
This is the greatest of the gifts given us. The ability to take the profane and make it holy. The reverse is possible—to make the holy profane—and it happens easily if we are not cautious. So, let us not forget our gift or leave it at the wayside; let us continue to baptize this world.
† Though that is a thing—do that. Get saved.