Today’s readings remind us of Martin of Tours, who was born in 316, was acclaimed Bishop of Tours on July 4th, 370, and ministered there until his death on November 11th, 396. Before the United States memorialized her veterans, before the world recognized Armistice Day, the Church celebrated a conscientious objector.
Martin, named after the god of war, was conscripted into the Roman army at a young age. His stature and appearance landed him in the most elite unit of all; the Praetorian Guard, Caesar’s personal security detachment. Everyone in his unit wore a beautiful white lambskin cape to signify their prestige and proximity to the most powerful man in the known world.
His growing interest in the newly legalized Christian religion made his a reluctant service, but one he nevertheless bore dutifully. Just a few years into his military obligation, Martin scandalously split his cape in order to clothe a freezing beggar in Amien, almost certainly despite the cold stares of his comrades. That night, he dreamt of Jesus, telling the heavenly host, “Here is my servant Martin, not even baptized, who has clothed me.”
Though Martin was baptized days later, unlike many soldier saints before him, he did not leave the military. Instead, he remained on for almost 25 years without having to draw the sword in battle. That all changed at [“Verms”] in 356. As Caesar Julian, his commander in chief, stood before him, Martin said loudly “I have served you long enough, let me now serve God. I am a soldier of Christ, I will not fight.”
Martin would go on to become an enormously popular priest and bishop, known for healing a great number of peasants across the French countryside, even raising up the dead. The cape he split in half to clothe Christ would be preserved by an order of monks in Tours. The sanctuary in which they housed it became known as a chapele (from Medieval Latin capella, literally “little cape”), which is the root word for both chapel and chaplain.
Every time you marvel at the beauty of the world’s chapels, remember Martin. This soldier of Christ reminds us that the Kingdom transcends our earthly oaths and allegiances; that Jesus can be found anywhere – in the guise of a freezing beggar, and in the uniform of a Christian soldier. Christ shattered the power of the sword over Martin’s imagination, and He can do the same for us. It is fitting that this conscientious participant, this man who knew well the thin red line between God and country, between faith and service, leads us all to engage more meaningfully and lovingly to those who serve in wars we oppose.
If we allow the light within us to break forth like the dawn, healing for the hidden wounds of war-weary soldiers is sure to follow quickly thereafter.