Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“Restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:2)

Homily given at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on Martin of Tours in All Saints Chapel, November 2011, by Jan Robitscher

Isaiah 58:6-12                                                                                                                             All Saints Chapel
  Psalm 15                                                                                                                                   CDSP                                                                          
Galatians6:1-2                                                                                                                            November 11, 2011
  Luke 18:18-30

In the Name of God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is a special day on the calendar: 11-11-11. Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day (the end of WWI), my nephew’s birthday. But I could also say, Happy Advent. No, I have not taken leave of my liturgical senses! In fact, in the 6th century, today would have marked the beginning of what was called “St. Martin’s Lent”, which was later shortened to what we now call Advent. But why St. Martin? Is it only a convenience of date (about 40 days until Christmas) or are there other aspects of Martin’s life that connect him with the season of Advent?  

There is  much hagiography about Martin, but there are some things we know.  Martin was born into a military family and, against his parents’ wishes, became a catechumen at about age 10. At 15, he was conscripted into the army, as was the custom for sons of military leaders. During that time, the story goes, he was on the road when he came upon a beggar who was almost naked, who asked for alms in the name of Christ. He took his military cloak, which was lined with lamb’s wool, and cut it in half with his sword, and gave half of it to the man. That night he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him, clothed in half a cloak. He said, “Martin, still a catechumen, covered me with this cloak”. Martin had been a catechumen for about 8 years and his biographer, Servanus Sulpicius, said that “he flew to be baptized.”. After much struggle with his superiors, Martin retired from the army to pursue a monastic vocation uder the tuteledge of Hilary of Poitiers, who ordained him to the Presbyterate around 353.            

Martin thought that he would lead a quiet, monastic life in the hermitage he founded outside of Tours. But that was not to be. In 372 the people acclaimed him Bishop. One story goes that they lured him to town with the story that he was needed to bless a sick person, so he went. He always took Jesus’ call to serve “The least of these” very seriously. Another story has it that Martin hid in a chicken coop, trying to “duck” his responsibility, but a noisy goose gave his location away and he was carried off to be consecrated.1  If, when you were a child, you ever played the game “Duck, duck, duck, GOOSE!”, now you know how it came about.

As bishop, Martin was both an apologist against the Arians and a reconciler for those the church wanted to punish for being heritics. He was adamently opposed to the death penalty and he took St. Paul’s words seriously: 

                        My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, 

                                you who have received the Spirit should restore such 

                                a one in a spirit of gentleness. (Gal. 6:1)                                

Martin tried to convince the emperor to spare the life of the heritic Priscillian and some of his followers from execution (as Bp. Ichtacias has wanted) but his negotiations failed and they became the first heritics who suffered execution rather than excommunication. Martin took Bp. Icthacias back, and even received Communion with him, but always wondered if this was the right decision. After this, Martin avoided gatherings of bishops, not wanting to cross paths with those who were involved in something so contrary to his own calling to be a reconciler and he demanded that the emperor stay out of church affairs. 

 Martin died at about the age of 80. An ascetic to the end, he refused all comforts, wanting to imitate Jesus’ own suffering. Shortly before he died he is reported to have said:                        

                        “Lord, if your people still need me I do not refuse the work. 

                                Your will be done.”

His feast has been celebrated since the 6th century and he was the first saint on the Roman Calendar who was not a martyr. His Feast Day is celebrated in Europe as a harvest festival, known as Martinmas, and, in modern times, also celebrates peace in Europe.2 The monastery he founded lasted until the French Revolution and he is one of the patron saints of France and also of soldiers, the military and several cities, and of many other things including winemaking! His cloak (or half a cloak) became a very famous relic, and from that word, cappa came the word capalam (the custodian of the cloak), then cappella, chapel  (small church), and eventually the French word chapelain from which we get our word “chaplain”.3 

But all of this begs the question: What does Martin have to do with Advent? Martin did more than study the Scriptures while a catechumen. He made the decision to live them out. He lived the life of the poor, taking to heart Jesus’ words to the rich man of our Gospel lesson:         

                        Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor,

                        and you will have treasure in heaven.  (Luke 18:22)          


He was passionate about St. Paul’s words on reconciliation in our Epistle lesson and the exhortation :

                        Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you

                                will fulfill the whole law of Christ.  (Gal. 6:2)


But most of all, Martin was determined to carry out Jesus’ words:

                        “In as much as you did it to one of the least

                                of these, you did it to me.”

He shunned honors and the trappings of high office, always living the monastic life even while he was bishop. But he was also obedient to God’s call, giving in to the discernment of others, making himself available to God. And he was willing to wait. He waited to become a catechumen and then to be baptized and then to be ordained, waited until the right time and place. 

The marking of the old six-week Advent with St. Martin’s Day is no accident. For Martin was the very essence of Advent lived out. His willingness to wait, to be available for God (even if sometimes reluctantly); his care of the poor and the sick; his call to be a reconciler among factions in and out of the Church, his refusing 

of the pomp and trappings of high office in favor of the monastic life, his self-sacrifice--all of these are a reflection--however faint--of the Incarnation itself.. And I am sure he knew and felt all of the comings of Christ--in the past, at his birth, in the present in Word and Sacrament and his coming again in glory. 

So I wish you a blessed 11-11-11--Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, and the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours. Happy Martinmas! And may I say, a bit early, Happy Advent!

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