Valentine’s Day is upon us. Heart-shaped cakes, boxes of candy, cards, and roses are some of the images this holiday evokes. I remember as an elementary student all of the excitement as we each passed out our Valentines to our friends and to that special someone we hoped would “be our Valentine.”
Valentine’s Day has an interesting background. Originally “Valentine” was the name of several Christian leaders who were executed by the Romans for the crime of being Christian. There is a tradition about one of these early martyrs named Valentine and the daughter of his jailor. According to the legend, on the eve of his execution Valentine wrote a note thanking her for befriending him while he was in prison. He signed the note, “Your Valentine.”
Perhaps the church could focus on this tradition as it seeks to find an alternative way to observe this commercialized holiday. Maybe we should focus on the needs of prisoners around the world. There are many people in prison, some of them being tortured and denied basic nutrition and warmth, in nations which have horrible reputations for human rights violations. These men, women, and children are in prison because of their political beliefs, their religious convictions, their ethnic or racial identities, their sexual orientations, and even their family connections. One organization that Christians can participate in as advocates for these people who have no voice or power is AMNESTRY INTERNATIONAL. If you want to make a difference in the lives of those persecuted for who they are and/or for what they believe and are committed to, you can send a real Valentine by becoming a part of this worthy organization. Just go on line to Amnesty International for the information and the ways you can help these victims of persecution.
A more controversial stance would be to become an advocate and friend to someone in prison who has been convicted of some crime. Ministry to those in jails and prisons is one part of our mission which churches have greatly neglected. Jesus in that much-quoted passage in Matthew 25 says, “I was in prison and you ministered to me.” The people blessed by his commendation are puzzled. “Lord, when did we see you in prison and minister to you?” they asked. Jesus replied, “When you have done it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”
In the church we frequently mention ministry to the hungry, the naked, the ill, and the homeless, but we are virtually silent regarding any ministry to those in prison. Perhaps we feel that they are getting what they deserve. Maybe they are, but the Gospel is based on a grace which says that in Christ none of us get what we deserve. We are recipients of a pardon which defies reason. (Take a moment to let these last two sentences sink deep into your mind and heart. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that none of us get what we deserve.)
This year send your chocolates, Valentine cards, and roses. Sing your songs of romance. But try not to forget the martyr Valentine or the words of our Lord. You might be surprised by whom you can meet in prison. Over the years people like St. Paul, St. Francis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and countless others have suffered behind bars. And if Christ is to be found in the least of humanity, then perhaps we shall find him even in those who (according to our judgments) “deserve” to be where they are. Maybe we should think twice before we say, “Be my Valentine.”