Monday, July 7, 2014

SAINT CHRISTOPHER, PRAY FOR US!


Yes, please do so.


This post is about a certain Bible story as well as a legend about a guy named Christopher. The Bible story and the legend have much in common. Both of them constitute an enlightened spiritual vision as well as a radical ‘call to arms,’ so to speak---a powerful call to arms for social and economic justice, a call to end oppression, discrimination, bigotry, injustice, inequality, poverty, homelessness, statelessness, starvation, sickness, and suffering of all other kinds. 


I love both the Bible story and the legend. Perhaps both are legends. It does not matter. The ‘message’ is eternal, and ever-so-relevant to today’s world.

 

In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we read that the personality, essence, and ‘spirit’ of the Divine as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ can be experienced even today as a living presence, for it is said that Jesus comes to us, and visits us, in our homes and in our communities. Most of all, he comes to us in the lives of those who are in great need, those who are marginalized, those whom society tends to reject and ignore.


If I have a theology at all it is very much a 'theology of man,' and it goes something like this.  The Bible says that all are made in the image and likeness of the Divine. Therefore, invoking the language of Christianity, everyone we meet, everyone we serve, is in the image of Jesus. Roman Catholics understand this so much better than Protestants. Yes, the ‘Anonymous Christ,’ as it is known, comes to us in so many ways and, again invoking a Christian metaphor, we fail to recognize that the incarnation of the Christ was not a one-off event but continues all the time, both in us and in other people. Now, we read in Matthew 25:34-40:

 

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus’ followers were originally known as ‘people of the way.’ Jesus, in his vision of the Anonymous Christ, offers all of us, irrespective of whether or not we are Christians, both a vision and a challenge. The call to follow is not a call to worship Jesus. Heaven forbid! No, Jesus never sought nor wanted that. No, the ‘Way of Jesus’ is a call to follow Jesus’ path, to live as he lived, and to serve others as he did. 

Now, here's something very important. The Way of Jesus, which is simply the way of love (for love is the nature and character of the 'Anonymous God' that has many, many names but really has no name as such at all), can be found in all religions and even outside of religion as well. You see, morality and ethics, as well as love, do not depend upon Christianity or upon any religion at all for that matter. Let’s get that perfectly clear once and for all. Okay? Ignore all those who would tell you something altogether different. They believe that they or their ‘god’ has a monopoly on the truth. Rubbish!

Here from Catholic Christianity is a story---actually, a legend---that I like very much. It concerns Saint Christopher (literally, ‘Christ-bearer’) [pictured], the so-called patron saint of travelers, and also especially revered by mariners and ferrymen. As a rather long aside (please forgive me) I remember when I was a young university student back in the early 1970s. I bought and brought home a Saint Christopher medal. I was not then a Catholic, my parents and I all being Protestants. They were much, more nominal in their faith than I was. I have always been incurably interested in religion, even when I have been opposed to it. My parents weren't for the most part, but they were quite anti-Catholic. It was a generational and sectarian phenomenon, and it was quite common. I am glad that sort of silly nonsense has now largely gone. Anyway, I would later convert to Catholicism---after the death of both my parents---when my life was in a horrible mess. My poor parents would have died much earlier than they did----they died far too young in any event---had I converted to the Catholic faith while they were still alive. Anyway, I brought home this rather cheap and nasty Saint Christopher medal, and my mother said to me, ‘What do you have that silly thing for? He is no longer a saint.’ 

Now, that was not the case then, and it is not the case now. Christopher has not been ‘de-sainted,’ if there be such a thing which I don't think there is. True, the Church has from time to time said that some previously canonized saints, found later to be of dubious historicity, are not actually saints, but that is as far as it goes. In the case of Saint Christopher, it is simply the case that in 1969 Pope Paul VI made some changes to the General Roman Calendar for the Catholic Church. Saint Christopher’s feast day was removed from the calendar on the ground that his feast was ‘not part of the ancient Roman tradition.’ There was no elaboration on that point, but the words have been taken to mean that although Saint Christopher is generally regarded as having been martyred for the faith in Syria in 308 CE, the evidence comes more from popular tradition than from the writings of early Church historians.

So, contrary to widespread misconception, Saint Christopher’s sainthood status was not altered. His feast day (traditionally July 25, except in Greece where it was celebrated on March 9), is now left to particular church calendars. In other words, Saint Christopher can still be venerated through inclusion in local calendars, such as those used in a particular diocese or country or by a group of religious. But, as usual, I digress. Saint Christopher had cult-like status in many countries, most notably in Italy, and also among Italian-Americans in countries such as the United States of America and even Australia (where I live). The dear saint is still quite 'visible' and sought after, despite his official status having been somewhat downgraded, so to speak, by the Vatican some 45 years ago.

There are several legends associated with Saint Christopher. This is one of them, and I love it. Saint Christopher, who is said to have been a very big, strong and tall man, met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked the hermit how he could serve Jesus. The hermit first suggested fasting and prayer, but Christopher said he was unable to perform that service. The hermit then suggested that because of his size and strength Christopher could serve and please Jesus by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where they were perishing in the attempt. That’s what Christopher decided upon.

Now, after Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked him to take him across the river. As Christopher forded the river crossing, the river became swollen, and the child seemed as heavy as lead, indeed steadily increased in weight , so much so that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. Yes, Christopher found his tiny burden so heavy that it was almost impossible to bear. When Christopher finally reached the other side, he said to the child: ‘You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.’ The child (the ‘holy babe’) replied, ‘You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.’ According to the legend, the child then vanished, but it is said that as a reward for his service Christopher's staff was miraculously transformed into a living tree, and Christopher himself became the patron saint of travellers.

I so much love this story. It is, you see, a re-telling of the ‘Anonymous Christ’ story from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We are following Jesus---carrying or bearing him, so to speak---when we serve and bear the burdens of our fellow human beings, especially those who are marginalized and in greatest need. They are the ones the ‘big end of town’ ignores. They are the ones that conservative, uncompassionate governments ignore. Yet, they are the very ones Jesus devoted his short life and public ministry to helping. Funny, that.

There is another version of the legendary story to the effect that the child/holy babe is said to have replied to Christopher that he (the holy babe, but indirectly and consequentially Christopher as well) carried the world's sins upon his shoulders. However, I prefer the firstmentioned version for a number of reasons. It is not necessary for present purposes to set out those reasons, but they pertain to the whole idea of the doctrine of the Atonement and certain difficulties that I have with at least some of the popular ‘theories’ of that doctrine as expounded by many evangelical, so-called ‘Bible-believing’ Christians. I have written about the matter elsewhere.

Although I am pretty much an apostate (but still quite emotionally attached) Catholic these days I still occasionally wear a Saint Christopher medal, and I have several of them in my various boxes of cufflinks, tie clips, badges, lapel pins, so-called 'holy medals,' and other miscellaneous objects. Now, I do not see the Christopher medal as some sort of ‘good luck charm’ as do some, dare I say it (I will, and must), superstitious Catholics---not that all Catholics are superstitious, but there is a great tendency there for that to occur in Catholicism. I do not believe in so-called good luck. We make, for better or worse, our own luck by the thoughts we think, the decisions we make, and the conduct in which we engage. No, I love the abovementioned legendary story of Saint Christopher because it reminds me of how I must act toward others who are vulnerable, marginalized, rejected, and otherwise in great need.

You know, there is a wonderful Christian group known as the
Christophers. Their motto is, 'It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.' That's so true. Perhaps this verse from the Bible best sets out the 'message' of the story of Saint Christopher: 'Bear one another's burdens and so you will fulfill the Law of Christ' (Gal 6:2). And what is the 'Law of Christ'? It is the law or principle---and power---of love in action. No matter what your religion, and even if you have none, the practice of love is the all-important thing.

‘Saint Christopher, pray for us!’ Yes, that we may willingly and lovingly bear, carry and relieve the burdens of others. That is all that matters.




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Saint Christopher medal
dating from the 1930s

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