Valentine Cards

February 21 2022 | by

ON FEBRUARY 14 the world celebrates romantic love in commemoration of Saint Valentine, martyred around 270 AD. His offense? Secretly marrying lovers when the emperor had forbidden the sacrament because he reasoned that single men made more committed soldiers.

According to Hallmark, an international greeting card manufacturer, approximately 145 million Valentine cards are exchanged yearly. In a plethora of styles, valentines generally adopt a red and white theme (for martyrdom and purity) and primarily feature hearts, flowers, and gentle birds.

While Pope Gelasius I in the 5th century proclaimed February 14 as a memorial to Saint Valentine, the day was first celebrated with card and gift giving around the 17th century. Although this holiday didn’t exist during Anthony’s time, he happened to have some thoughts on certain birds now associated with valentines.


Hawk-like Satan


Surprisingly, chickens are popular on comical valentines that declare: I’ve been chicken you out; You are eggs-actly right for me; and Wattle I do without you? In contrast, Anthony was completely serious when writing about these domesticated fowl. Christ lamented to the Jewish people, “How often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldst not (Mt 23.37).” Anthony explains, “… the hen is made weak with the weakness of her chicks… shielding them with her wings, she bristles against the hawk for their sake. In the same way Christ… was made weak for our weakness” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals IV, pp. 23-25; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova). By shielding us from hawk-like Satan, Christ took the death blow instead of us. The love portrayed on any valentine falls short of Christ’s love for us.


The curlew


Reflecting thoughts found in medieval bestiaries, Anthony imagined the curlew as a Christ-image who took our deserved condemnation upon Himself. Common to European countries, the curlew, called caladrius in the bestiary, is a shore bird with a long, slender bill. This bill caught the attention of medieval minds. They believed that a curlew would fix its gaze on a sick person, approach that person’s face and, with its long bill, siphon out the illness and bring it into itself. “Then it flies into the air, and totally consumes it [the illness] in the burning rays of the sun… Christ… came to us, took our infirmity, mounted the Cross, and there consumed our sins in the burning heat of the Passion” (Sermons IV, p. 234).

On romantic valentines, birds most commonly pictured are doves, pigeons, and swallows. Often these peaceful, selfless birds are carrying a note to the beloved recipient. A 13th century author, Bartholomaeus Anglicus, wrote of doves and pigeons, calling them culvours, “in Egypt and in Syria a culvour is taught to bear letters, and to be messenger out of one province into another… And be it never so far borne into far countries, always it will return home again, if it be restored to freedom. And oft to such a culvour a letter is craftily bound under the one wing, and then it is let go. Then it flieth up into the air, and ceaseth never till it come to the first place in which it was bred.”


The turtle-dove


The docility and servitude of these birds impressed Anthony, who likened Christ to the turtle-dove. “Christ did as the turtle-dove does. In winter-time it comes down to the valleys and lives in the hollow trunks of trees, having moulted its plumage…. so Christ, in the winter of faithlessness and the cold of the devil’s persecution, came down into the womb of the most lowly Virgin, and dwelt in this world as poor and abject (like a bird without its plumage)” (Sermons I, p. 346).

Like the dove which “in spring it returns to the mountains,” so Christ, “when summer drew near and the cruel persecution of the Jews grew hot, and the heat of the Passion blazed up, then he returned to the mountain, his Father, saying: I go to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me: Whither goest thou? Let us ask Christ by what way he goes to the Father. He will reply, “By way of the Cross!” (Sermons I, p. 346).


Need for purification


Thus Anthony encourages us repentant souls to follow our own way of the Cross and so become united with our Lord through divine love. Anthony notes, “Natural History says that if a young swallow’s eyes are pulled out, they grow again. The penitent who loses the eye of divine love cries out to recover it” (Sermons IV, p. 113).

The repentant soul can look to the pigeon and turtle-dove for inspiration. Just as “doves remove the dung of their chicks from the nest, and purify it” and teach their chicks to do the same, so “just men purify their own and their subordinates’ uncleannesses, and teach them to cleanse their own” (Sermons IV, pp. 110-11).

For her purification after giving birth to Christ, the Blessed Mother offered “a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons [Lk 2.24]. The ‘pair of turtle-doves’ stand for the two kinds of chastity, and the ‘two young pigeons’ for the two kinds of compunction” (Sermons IV, p. 111).

The first kind of chastity is “modesty,” Anthony explains, and the second is “the fear of God.” The first type of compunction is “the bitterness of contrition… when we groan for the evil we have done” and the second burns within us like “a holocaust, when we are afire with heavenly love” (Sermons IV, pp.112-13).

Like the turtle-dove or pigeon who “builds its nest in the clefts of the rock,” so the repentant sinner “builds his nest in the wounds of Christ, wherein he places both the nest of his hope and the chicks of his works” (Sermons IV, pp.112-13).

God grants us a reward that is more lasting than a paper card of hearts. “Whoever is purified in this way, and offered with such sacrifices or redeemed with such a price, without a doubt he will be received by the hands of angels in the heavenly temple” (Sermons IV, p. 113).

Updated on February 22 2022