Monday, November 8, 2010

Because of How He Lived

Because I've been really busy lately, and because busyness doesn't lead to profound thoughts, I'm copying something straight from my website.  It regards a saint's day coming up this week, on November 11:

November 11 is Veterans Day. It also happens to be the feast day of one of the patron saints of soldiers, Martin of Tours. Somewhat ironically, this patron saint is someone who left the army when he became Christian - but that was the Roman army. There's a legend that says Martin met a beggar on the road who had nothing to wear against the cold. Martin used his Roman army sword to cut in half his luxurious Roman army cloak, and gave half of the cloak to the beggar. Then he had a dream (vision?) in which he saw Jesus wearing the cloak he had given to the beggar. An experience like that could certainly make someone think about changing careers.

Being a liturgy geek, I find Saint Martin's feast day to be particularly fascinating. It's officially labeled a Memorial, which is the normal run-of-the-mill remembrance for most saints. But everything about its liturgy - the prayers and Scripture readings at Mass, the psalms used in the Liturgy of the Hours, etc. - is set up as if it were a Feast (one step up from a Memorial, to commemorate Very Important Saints). As far as I know, there's no other day like it on the calendar. By all accounts, the explanation is that Saint Martin was once considered to be a Very Important Saint, important enough to rate a Feast. Over the centuries what had made him special became pretty hum-drum, so he was demoted to a Memorial. But evidently no one's had the heart to take away his Feast-like celebration.

What made Martin special was that he wasn't a martyr. If that sounds hum-drum to us, well, that's the point. But Martin was the first person to be officially declared a Saint who wasn't a martyr. So at the time it was important news.

The whole Saint (as opposed to saint) thing started in the Roman catacombs, where Christians met during the Roman persecution for "the breaking of the bread" (a.k.a. the Mass). Now that Mass is in English, the priest has a number of options for the Eucharistic Prayer, the central prayer of the Mass which in "the old days" was called the Canon. But for most of its life, the Latin Mass had only one Canon, and our current Eucharistic Prayer I is simply a translation of that Latin prayer into English. And embedded in that prayer is something that remains from the days of the catacombs: a list of Saints. The priest today has the option of shortening the list if he wants to, but the long form names quite a few Saints, all of whom were martyred during the Roman persecution. The origin of the list is the practice during the persecution of announcing the names of members of the community who had been put to death. The names were also inscribed on walls in the catacombs. Adding a person's name to the list that was read during the Canon was canonizing the person, which is still the word used for declaring someone officially a Saint.

But a strange thing happened when Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire: since members of the community were no longer being martyred, no one was being added to the list. As is true today, the early Church considered the people who were canonized to be examples of holiness and dedication for other members of the community. With the end of the persecutions, the Christians in Rome had a couple of choices: they could either stop where they were and not offer the community any new examples of holiness, or they could begin recognizing the holiness of people who hadn't been martyred. Of course, they chose the latter. But as with most new ideas, some people needed convincing. They could hopefully be won over if the first non-martyred person added to the list was someone whose holiness was so widely recognized that no one could question it. We don't know much about Martin's life, but we know that the community was so sure of his holiness that they picked him to be the first canonized person who wasn't a martyr.

The mentions of Martin in his feast-day liturgy speak over and over about how he glorified God not by how he died but by how he lived. If someone doesn't know the history behind his canonization, it sounds pretty hum-drum. But if someone does know the history, it can be interesting and even somewhat exciting to know that this bit of the past is still recognized in the present. After all, most of us will also be called to glorify God by how we live - which the early Church understood when deciding to give us Martin as an example. 

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