25 July 2011

25 July - Saint Christopher

Buxheim Saint Christopher, 1423, woodcut

In the old calendar, this is the feast of Saint Christopher, Martyr.  For a while, he was one of the most well-known of saints; as the patron of travelers, many people (even those who didn't believe in saints) had a St. Christopher statue on their dashboard or his image on their key-chain.

He was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and besides protecting travelers, he was invoked against plague and sudden, unprovided death (read the list of his patronages at Saints.SQPN).

This version of the story of Saint Christopher is taken from Sacred and Legendary Art, Volume II, by Mrs. Anna Jameson (1879):

"Christopher was of the land of Canaan, and the name by which he was there known was Offero. He was a man of colossal stature, and of a terrible aspect, and, being proud of his vast bulk and strength, he was resolved that he would serve no other than the greatest and the most powerful monarch that existed. So he travelled far and wide to seek this greatest of kings; and at length he came to the court of a certain monarch who was said to exceed in power and riches all the kings of the earth, and he offered to serve him. And the king, seeing his great height and strength, — for, surely, since the giant of Gath there had been none like to him, — entertained him with joy.

Now it happened one day, as Christopher stood by the king in his court, there came a minstrel who sang before the king, and in his story there was frequent mention of the Devil, and every time the king heard the name of the evil spirit he crossed himself. Christopher inquired the reason of this gesture, but the king did not answer. Then said Christopher, "If thou tellest me not, I leave thee!" So the king told him: "I make that sign to preserve me from the power of Satan, for I fear lest he overcome me and slay me." Then said Christopher, "If thou fearest Satan, then thou art not the most powerful prince in the world; thou hast deceived me. I will go seek this Satan, and him will I serve; for he is mightier than thou art." 

So he departed, and he travelled far and wide; and as he crossed a desert plain, he beheld a great crowd of armed men, and at their head marched a terrible and frightful being, with the air of a conqueror: and he stopped Christopher on his path, saying, " Man, where goest thou?" And Christopher answered, "I go to seek Satan, because he is the greatest prince in the world, and him would I serve." Then the other replied, "I am he: seek no farther." Then Christopher bowed down before him, and entered his service; and they travelled on together.

Now, when they had journeyed a long, long way, they came to a place where four roads met, and there was a cross by the wayside. When the Evil One saw the cross he was seized with fear, and trembled violently; and he turned back, and made a great circuit to avoid it. When Christopher saw this he was astonished, and inquired, " Why hast thou done so ?" and the Devil answered not. Then said Christopher, "If thou tellest me not, I leave thee." So, being thus constrained, the fiend replied, " Upon that cross died Jesus Christ; and when I behold it I must tremble and fly, for I fear him." Then Christopher was more and more astonished; and he said, "How, then! this Jesus, whom thou fearest, must be more potent than thou art! I will go seek him, and him will I serve!" 

So he left the Devil, and travelled far and wide, seeking Christ; and, having sought him for many days, he came to the cell of a holy hermit, and desired of him that he would show him Christ. Then the hermit began to instruct him diligently, and said, "This king whom thou seekest is, indeed, the great king of heaven and earth; but if thou wouldst serve him, he will impose many and hard duties on thee. Thou must fast often." And Christopher said, "I will not fast; for, surely, if I were to fast my strength would leave me." "And thou must pray!" added the hermit. Said Christopher, " I know nothing of prayers, and I will not be bound to such a service." 

Then said the hermit, "Knowest thou a certain river, stony and wide and deep, and often swelled by the rains, and wherein many people perish who attempt to pass over ?" And he answered, " I know it." Then said the hermit, " Since thou wilt neither fast nor pray, go to that river, and use thy strength to aid and to save those who struggle with the stream, and those who are about to perish. It may be that this good work shall prove acceptable to Jesus Christ, whom thou desirest to serve; and that he may manifest himself to thee!" To which Christopher replied joyfully, "This I can do. It is a service that pleaseth me well!" 

So he went as the hermit had directed, and he dwelt by the side of the river; and, having rooted up a palm-tree from the forest, — so strong he was and tall, — he used it for a staff to support and guide his steps, and he aided those who were about to sink, and the weak he carried on his shoulders across the stream; and by day and by night he was always ready for his task, and failed not, and was never wearied of helping those who needed help.

So the thing that he did pleased our Lord, who looked down upon him out of heaven, and said within himself, "Behold this strong man, who knoweth not yet the way to worship me, yet hath found the way to serve me!"

    Now, when Christopher had spent many days in this toil, it came to pass one night, as he rested himself in a hut he had built of boughs, he heard a voice which called to him from the shore: it was the plaintive voice of a child, and it seemed to say, " Christopher, come forth and carry me over !" And he rose forthwith and looked out, but saw nothing; then he lay down again; but the voice called to him in the same words, a second and a third time; and the third time he sought round about with a lantern; and at length he beheld a little child sitting on the bank, who entreated him, saying, " Christopher, carry me over this night." And Christopher lifted the child on his strong shoulders, and took his staff and entered the stream. 

      And the waters rose higher and higher, and the waves roared, and the winds blew; and the infant on his shoulders became heavier, and still heavier, till it seemed to him that he must sink under the excessive weight, and he began to fear; but nevertheless, taking courage, and staying his tottering steps with his palm-staff, he at length reached the opposite bank; and when he had laid the child down, safely and gently, he looked upon him with astonishment, and he said, "Who art thou, child, that hath placed me in such extreme peril? Had I carried the whole world on my shoulders, the burden had not been heavier!" And the child replied, " Wonder not, Christopher, for thou hast not only borne the world, but him who made the world, upon thy shoulders. Me wouldst thou serve in this thy work of charity; and, behold, I have accepted thy service: and in testimony that I have accepted thy service and thee, plant thy staff in the ground, and it shall put forth leaves and fruit." Christopher did so, and the dry staff flourished as a palm-tree in the season, and was covered with clusters of dates, — but the miraculous child had vanished.

     Then Christopher fell on his face, and confessed and worshipped Christ."

After that, Christopher went to Lycia where, as stated in the Roman Martyrology, "being scourged with iron rods, cast into the flames, from which he was saved by the power of Christ, and finally transfixed with arrows and beheaded, he completed his martyrdom."  Before he died, however, he prayed that those who looked upon his image, trusting in God the Redeemer, should not suffer from tempest, earthquake, or fire.