Martin of Tours, one of my most favorite saints, was the son of a soldier in the Roman Army of the fourth century. He first attended church at the age of ten, against his parents’ wishes. When Martin was fifteen, he was required to join the army himself and served in Amiens, France. One winter night, he saw a beggar at the city gates, shivering with cold. Martin had no money to give him, but he took off his heavy cloak and sliced it down the middle with his sword, giving half to the beggar. That night, Jesus came to Martin in a dream, wrapped in part of Martin’s cloak. Martin’s biographer, who knew him personally, wrote that the next day, Martin “flew to be baptized.” Martin decided that he could not be both a soldier and a follower of Jesus. Later, he reluctantly became Bishop of Tours.
The piece of cloak that Martin kept was saved and much later, French kings swore oaths on it and ironically to us, anyway, carried it into battle. The words chapel and chaplain both come from the from the French word that means “little cloak,” for the little temporary churches that were used to hold the cloak and for the priest who took care of it. Eventually, all priests who served in the military caring for soldiers were called chaplains, and small churches everywhere became known as chapels.
Today he is remembered as the patron of all those who serve in the military, and the day of his death, November 11, is also Veterans Day, when we honor those who have fought for the protection of others.
In the Middle Ages, Advent began with the Feast of St. Martin and lasted for forty days until Christmas, just like Lent, the season that prepares us for Easter. In Europe, children still make lanterns on St. Martin’s Day as the night comes early to carry his light and the light of Christ into the world.
This year especially, I want to give us permission to begin Advent NOW. My lovely dinner church, St. Lydia’s, observes a seven-week Advent. This doesn’t change the readings we hear on Sundays, or interfere with Thanksgiving or the celebration of the harvest. It simply means that we can begin preparing, in our hearts and in our homes, for the coming of the Christ Child, in any way that makes sense for us. It’s time to live into the richness and mystery of the dark while waiting for the light to grow and spread.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents, from which this post is adapted. You may enjoy the Advent ideas found here and here.