This post was updated in November 2022.
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 Christ 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.
Have you been wondering about the binary of light and dark that so often frames our language and thinking in Advent? There are some thoughtful resources to guide you as we consider the history of harm in the church that’s been done especially to our Black siblings when we name light and white as good and black and dark as evil. This article in the Anglican Journal is a good starting point to the conversation. Learning to Walk in the Dark by Episcopal priest and renowned author Barbara Brown Taylor is a beautiful and wise book filled with spiritual insights. Illustrated Ministry designed a family Advent devotional inspired by it. God’s Holy Darkness by Sharei Green and Beckah Selnick, gorgeously illustrated by Nikki Faison is ostensibly for children, but the note at its conclusion invites all of us to consider ways of challenging our perceptions of race in our theology and in our places of worship.
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.