God is at the heart of marriage, marriage is at the heart of family, and family is at the heart of the story of the Bible!
Genesis 2:21-24 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he slept, He took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the area with flesh. And from the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man, He made a woman and brought her to him. And the man said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man she was taken.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Today we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.
St. Valentine was Bishop of Terni in Italy in the 3rd century. He was known as a very wise and learned religious man. During Valentine’s see, Emperor Claudius Gothicus came to power in 268 A.D. and while he reigned for just one and a half years, they were fateful years for Valentine. During his short reign, Claudius banned marriage. But St. Valentine just kept on marrying people in open defiance of the Emperor. And for this, Valentine was arrested, beaten, stoned, and then beheaded. His skull is in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, crowned with flowers.
The Marriage Ban
Now they say that Claudius prohibited marriage in order to get more soldiers, since married men were exempt from being soldiers. And this is true. But it’s important to remember that in 3rd century Rome, marriage wasn’t “held in honor” by the general public as it was by the Christian Church. It was very similar to our own times – anyone could enjoy an intimate relationship with anyone, could live with anyone they pleased. As a soldier under Claudius, while you may not marry, you may still enjoy your time with whomsoever you wanted, as your desires dictated.
The Christians, on the other hand, restricted intimacy and co-habitation to the sacrament of marriage, and this was the sacrament by which Christians fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.”
And Christians would often marry young! This is in accordance with what St. Paul wrote, “if they cannot control themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Everyone here remembers what it’s like to be a teenager, or a young adult. Those passions really start to burn! You can imagine, then, how tortuous it must have been for the youth of Rome to be barred from marrying – while everyone around them is indulging in their passions, they’re wrestling with that legendary passion of youth, with no partner to share it with, and no sacrament by which they can come together in a Godly way.
So you can see how this marriage ban really targeted Christians for persecution — young Christians who wanted to live with their loved ones virtuously, according to the laws of the Christian Church, in the sacrament of marriage.
The Scandal of Marriage & The 10 Commandments
Now think about this. This wonderful sacrament of marriage – this was all that stood between Claudius Gothicus and all the youthful soldiers he wanted to get his hands on. Isn’t it amazing how, time and time again, the virtues of love, marriage, and family are often deemed such a threat to the powers that be? It’s a sad pattern, that the virtues that bring life are often considered a threat by people whose power rests in the opposite – we call those anti-life regimes, anti-life cultures.
In our day, we don’t have any sort of legal marriage ban. And yet, in our culture many young adults take on a self-imposed marriage ban until they’ve basically exhausted every other option! Maybe you want to get steady in your career first; maybe you want to play the field a bit; maybe you don’t think you’re ready for commitment, or for children.
I can tell you from experience – no one’s ever ready for children! No one is ever really ready for life, either, to be honest. But Jesus tells us, fear not, have faith. Where there is fear, there’s too little faith, or no faith at all. And that faithless fear is often what drives young adults to flee from commitment and responsibility. Trust me, I know from experience in my former life.
But none of this is anything new under the sun. This is the same attitude that dominated Roman culture in the time of St. Valentine. But it was not a culture worthy of Christ. Compare it to what the Bible says, even just in the 10 Commandments: honor your mother and father, don’t commit adultery. In short, family first – family, whose true foundation is God, in the sacrament of holy matrimony. This is the way to life.
The young believers living under Claudius’ short anti-life reign turned to their shepherd, Bishop Valentine, and they asked, “what shall we do to inherit eternal life in this season”? And like a good shepherd, Valentine did God’s work and ministered life to them at the expense of his own. Over and against what the Emperor of the World had commanded, St. Valentine instead took heed to the words of the Emperor of Emperors and the King of Kings who said through the Apostle Paul, and said simply — “let them marry.”
The Church’s Power To Marry
What better day to meditate on the sacrament of matrimony than Valentine’s Day! Does anyone know when the Christian Church started getting into the marrying business? Right away!
The People of God always reserved the right to marry – from the time of Adam and Eve onward. It was a sacrament given to men and women from the beginning, the first sacrament, in the Garden of Eden. But humanity didn’t stay faithful to God, nor did it stay faithful to the sacrament of marriage. Jesus said, even the great and holy lawgiver Moses allowed for divorce in the Law because of the hardness of the hearts of men, even though God never intended for it to be that way.
He said this not to condemn those who divorce, but to glorify God who is merciful and compassionate toward the broken hearted.
But Jesus said, in the beginning, God made man to leave his mother and cleave to his wife – therefore what God has put together, let not man put asunder.
In other words, marriage is God’s business, not man’s. Emperor Claudius had no business sticking his nose into God’s business. St. Valentine was a Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ, a servant of the Lord and no other, and he knew what his job description was.
As far back as the 2nd century A.D. — this is the generation of the disciples of the disciples of Jesus — we have a letter from St. Ignatius to the Apostle John’s disciple, St. Polycarp, where he writes “men and women who marry should enter into their unity with the approval of the bishop.”
Christians were always married by a bishop – I daresay, they would not have approved of such statements as, “by the power vested in me by the state of Massachusetts,” in a wedding ceremony – since their authority to marry was vested in them not by the civil powers, but by the Lord of Heaven and Earth Himself through the laying on of hands in a succession going back to the Apostles of Jesus Christ Himself.
They’re always getting themselves in trouble when they exercise the power of Christ’s ministry, aren’t they? Because what we’re always saying as Christians is, we serve only one Master, and His is the only power we recognize, and what we do, we do by His power and His power alone.
And this was the presumption made by St. Valentine, the Bishop of Terni, which infuriated Emperor Claudius so severely. These Emperors, they never like hearing that there is a power greater, an authority higher, than their own – and worse, that their own subjects are are claiming to wield it.
So St. Valentine was arrested, and thrown into prison. Now, as Providence would have it, his jailer was a friend of his – the Roman judge, Asterius. As we mentioned earlier, our friend the Bishop of Terni, Valentine, was very well known for his great learning, and before he was arrested, Asterius had asked him to be the tutor for his daughter Julia, who was blind.
Julia adored her tutor. And Valentine would often pray with her and her family that she would receive back her sight from the Lord. He was a part of their family.
Tradition tells us that while St. Valentine was in prison, enduring awful tortures, he would receive sweet letters from his little student Julia. The last letter he sent to her, he signed, “from your Valentine” — hence our Valentine’s Day tradition of signing our letters, “from your Valentine.”
The day after sending this last letter to Julia, St. Valentine was beaten, stoned, and beheaded, on February 14th, 269 A.D. Hence why we remember him this day.
They say that when Valentine’s jailer and friend Asterius took that last letter of his and delivered it to Julia, she miraculously received back her eyesight on the spot.
Marriage Is Family
Today we celebrate love. Love is precious. Today we celebrate that special love that is at the heart of marriage. Marriage is a sacrament, a blessed mystery that is at the heart of everything – it’s the mystery at the heart of the story of the Bible, and therefore the story of all of us.
In the Beginning, God said, “it is not good that man be alone. I will make for him a helper.” God gave him all sorts of creatures to call his companion, but Adam didn’t want a pet. And he didn’t want a friend. He wanted a wife. Only when he laid eyes on Eve, did he say, “she is the bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”
Now, we’re often taught that what he’s saying is, “my entire body is resonating with love for her”, like he’s singing, “I can feel it in my fingers, I can feel it my toes.” And the Bible says that he cries out, “At Last,” like Etta James, “At Last!”
But this isn’t the exact meaning of “bone of my bones”. Later in Genesis, Jacob lays eyes on Rachel for the first time – he’s so overcome with love at first sight that he runs up and kisses her, and weeps.
Now, we have to forgive the folks from olden times – but these two kids were cousins. Rachel’s father, Laban, was the brother of Jacob’s mother. When Laban comes out, he gives his nephew Jacob a big hug and a kiss and says, “surely you are my bone and my flesh.”
Obviously these weren’t romantic words. He’s saying — “you’re familly.” And when Adam said those first words to Eve, he was putting into words the mystery of marriage – family.
The Family of God
Now, we are the family of God by faith. The Bible says that we’re adopted by the Father of Jesus into the holy family, the royal family, heirs of all things. The Prophets of Israel foretold this amazing story in many ways with many types of imagery – but most importantly they told about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church is the Bride. A marriage of heaven and earth. Can you see how powerful and holy marriage is, that the whole story of our relationship with God is a love story that consummates in a Wedding?
In the Bible, marriage isn’t just about the passionate love between lovers. It’s about two becoming one, and not just two becoming one, but that one becoming many – being fruitful, and multiplying! In short, it’s about family. The marriage sacrament is God’s gift to us, and it is God’s way for us to reveal the mysteries of His love through family.
While many in our world, just like Valentine’s world, are satisfied with pursuing the passions without commitment and calling it love, that kind of affectation doesn’t even register in Christ’s measure of love. He calls that fornication, adultery. That’s the way of the world.
But in Christ’s world, the world where Heaven and Earth are married, the sacrament of marriage is held in high honor, and love finds its highest calling therein in a very special way – and this is a sacred right to those who are the children of God.
The Glorious Freedom of Marriage
Many people in the world today say what they’ve always said: that marriage is stuffy, repressive, antiquated, limited. Let them say that. As we talked about last week, true freedom is serving Christ with fruitful faith, with a self-sacrificing and joyful love that rejects seeking one’s own pleasure as the object of love. The sacrament of marriage is just such a vocation of self-sacrificing and joyful love, and therefore it is a form of the “glorious freedom of the children of God” to which many Christians are called, and which we today celebrate on Valentine’s Day.
This is the freedom and the right that St. Valentine died for: the right to marry, the right to “not be alone,” the right to join your life with someone else’s and call it your own — your life together with your spouse and your family. To have your own spouse; to have your spouse’s fidelity; to have your own children; your own home; your own name; your own legacy. Yours and no one else’s.
And this freedom is protected by nothing other than the loving self-sacrifice which Valentine demonstrated as a Bishop, called as he was to be a shepherd like Christ was, devoted to his church. And so is every husband called to be so devoted to his wife, and every wife to her husband, and every parent to their children – devoted in holy love.
So today, on St. Valentine’s Day, let’s bless the heavenly God-given sacrament of matrimony, and celebrate all of those who have been called to married life, and who serve the Lord in their marriage.