11 November this year landed on the Lord’s Day, so the Church celebrated the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (the twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity, for those who prefer to count them in that way). Lost, therefore, to most people was the fact that it also happens to be Saint Martin’s Day. When something like this happens, St. Martin’s feast should get a commemoration by means of the second collect. Even where this may have happened, though, I suspect that for most people the day went by without thinking much of St. Martin. Therefore I thought I’d share a word on that great saint.
It is unfortunate when people say that Martin Luther was the “first Martin,” or the “original Martin.” Put simply, the truth is hardly served by such talk, in fact, it is cheated. Neither Chemnitz nor Luther would have wanted the Church to lose sight of the saints of old, men like the great fourth century Bishop of Tours, for such saints of long ago are not so far removed from us as we might be tempted to think. The distance that time appears to have put between them and us is only apparent. They are our brothers, and side by side with them we gather in worship, as sheep, around the Lamb who is our Shepherd. This is the very definition of the Church which Luther says in the Smalcald Articles is apprehended by all who receive the Holy Eucharist, that is, even by the seven year old child. In other words, while we could discuss at length the importance of what the Apology (XXI) says about the threefold honor of the saints, which we ought to do a little further down the road, I suggest that we first of all remind ourselves of the place of the departed saints relative to our struggle in this world. Namely, they are very much with us, for we are united in Christ, in whom we all have sonship, and therefore brotherhood. This is a great comfort when we think of our Christian loved ones who have gone before us, those who were killed, or died of cancer, or whatever. When it comes to those we don’t know very well, such as the saints of old, we might let it serve as motivation to get to know them better.
Martin was born after the edict of Milan and a few years before the first great ecumenical Council, specifically, about 317. His father had certainly hoped that his son would have a great military career, and thus follow in his own footsteps. So he named him Martin, after the god of war, Mars. As a child Martin became curious about the Christian faith, probably because there were Christians among his boyhood playmates. To make a wonderful story regretfully brief, Martin at length did follow in his father’s footsteps, and served with distinction.
When you hear of a man whose conversion to Christ was sudden and complete in one moment, do not believe it. I would contend that in virtually all cases, conversion simply doesn’t happen as if in a vacuum, without any preparation. St. Paul, for example, had studied the scriptures for years before he was knocked on his rear end on the way to Damascus. Though St. Ambrose went from Baptism to ordination to consecration in about a week’s time, it’s not like he knew nothing of Christ before that point. Francis had waffled back and forth for years before (and after) the day he gazed upon the crucifix of San Damiano. Likewise, Martin’s conversion is in a slight need of rescue from those who tend to focus his conversion on the occasion when, as a soldier, he saw a poor man on the road, and cut his own cape with his sword, and clothed the man, receiving confirmation from Christ later in a dream that when he clothed that poor man, he clothed Christ Himself. I do find this to be a highly significant event. Yet let us be clear that Martin was not an utter pagan before this, nor did he abandon his military service the next day.
Like so many great students of scripture, Martin had a fatherly mentor. Augustine had Ambrose, Luther had Johann von Staupitz, and Martin had Hilary. Over the course of time, Hilary helped Martin learn to pray, through the asceticism of the regular praying of the Psalms, and with his help he learned to find Christ in the scriptures. Martin became a fearless opponent of heresy, which got him in no little trouble. And soon he became the bishop of Tours.
As bishop, Martin was greatly beloved by the people. Indeed, through his ministry, the people knew Christ Himself. When the time had finally come for Martin to fall asleep in Christ, and find his rest, he was about eighty years old. He died in 397, on the 8th of November. Three days later there was a great funeral, which drew about two thousand people from the entire region. The day was so memorable, that it, rather than the day of his death, as is usually the custom, became his feast.
Let me finally touch briefly on that famous day before he became bishop, when as a soldier he gave his garment to cover a poor man on the way. We ought to let that event serve for us as an image of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who fights for us, and who covers us with the perfect garment of His righteousness. Just as Martin forcefully tore his cape from his body with his weapon, so our Lord’s righteousness comes to us directly from His own violently torn apart body. We are Baptized into precisely His very Passion and death, and raised up with Him into His own life. So we wear that blood soaked garment with great joy and pride, for it protects us and saves us from the cold, misery, and loneliness of life without Him, which is really no life at all. Baptism, and the other aspects of the sacramental ministry of the Word of God, this is the means by which the Church bears and sustains her children to this day. So we thank God for His dear Church, the Bride of Christ, which, like a protective mother, covers her children with the comforting message of the Gospel. That little incident with an obscure soldier, and an even more obscure poor man, so many centuries ago, brings us to mind of all these truths, because the very word for the cape Martin wore, in French, is chapelle, which Christians throughout the world use to describe their churches, or chapels.
What is true of the Christian is macrocosmically true of the Church, of which he is a member. And just as a man is covered with the righteousness of Christ, as with a garment, so we can say the same of the Church as a whole, a bride who is chaste and pure precisely because she is bought and redeemed by Christ. Let us then, never tire of seeking the covering, the mantilla, if you will, of the Church.