was an army brat — a veteran’s son — and so he was born to it: the
sand and dust of the march, the clip-clop of the mules, the cackling
of the camp women, and the dash of steel. By the time he was a young
boy, he knew how a soldier dug a latrine and could hum along to
every off-color marching tune. At the time when most civilians of
his age and class were worrying about whether to study in Rome or
go to Athens, Martin was enlisted in the heavy cavalry — and off
to war he went.
It was a border
fight — to the north with the barbarians who did not know their
place. Well, they were sort of barbarians — unreformed Gauls who
didn’t want to pay their tribute to Rome is perhaps a fairer description.
But seven hundred years before the Gauls
had sacked Rome — and they were still paying for it. And so
the cavalry watched and waited and knew that soon the orders would
What did Martin
think of this fight? What did he think about these orders that he
knew would come? He was obviously a thoughtful young officer — no
doubt some combination of doubt and duty struggled in his mind.
Martin had grown up in the army; it was his life and his father’s
life before him. Martin belonged in the military, his family was
in the military, his friends where in the military. He loved the
patria, his father- and homeland. And yet, he did not quite
belong, did not quite fit in. He found himself asking questions
that not all soldiers ask, that not all men ask — questions about
right and wrong, questions about man and God, questions about time
And who could
answer these questions? Many of his comrades and friends were content
with the old saws — the gods of Rome were pleased with Rome. How
else to explain the divine gift of hegemony accorded to Rome from
the British Isles to the shores of the Euphrates? Some of the men
— especially the NCO’s and those desiring upward mobility through
the ranks — went in for the cult of Mithras. There were answers
there, but everyone knew that it was mainly an old boys’ club.
intrigued Martin were the Christians. Just a handful of years before
Martin’s birth the Empire had declared them traitors and a threat
to the homeland. But still they clung tenaciously to their God and
to his teaching of forgiveness in the blood of a man (or was he
a god? — it was confusing) who died as an enemy of the Empire on
a Roman cross planted in the ground by a centurion with the Eagles
on his shoulder. They said that the same centurion later saw this
Jesus up from the dead and that he left everything to follow the
One who had walked down into death and walked right out again.
It was all
intriguing — but Martin didn’t take the plunge. How could he follow
this Christ and the battle standard of the Augustus
of East and West? It was all a little academic — intriguing,
strangely inviting, but academic. He was in the heavy cav, and the
Gauls were at the gate.
So Martin waited
with the army, waited at the gate. And if he was also waiting for
a sign — that came too, right at the gate. The sign was a beggar.
And Martin, the half-Christian did the half-Christian thing. He
remembered that Jesus said to give your tunic to him who asked —
but still, those Gaulish night watches can be cold. So he gave him
half his cloak.
And maybe it
was the knowledge that he had done only half a duty that disturbed
his sleep that night. Or maybe it was the cold, what with only half
a cloak to wrap up in. Or maybe it really was a vision fair — of
Christ, that God-man, wrapped up in half an officer’s cloak. He
was speaking to the angels — and like in so many dreams, Martin
could only catch part of what he was saying to them, but what he
caught cast him into waking like a bolt of lightening: “Here is
Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad Me.”
No more half-measures
and half cloaks! No more unbaptized, either: Martin ran for the
nearest priest. And no more Roman soldier. The die was cast when
the Jordan was crossed. Martin informed his superiors of his new
faith, his new life, his new everything and requested a discharge:
for a Christian, said Martin, could have no part in this fight of
that did not go over well. They said he was a coward — for Martin
spoke on the eve of battle. No man likes to be thought a coward
— Martin volunteered to be set weaponless at the front of the battle
and take his chances with the grace of God and the steel of Gauls.
But the high command would have none of that — bad for morale. So
Martin went off to a jail cell.
And then they
let him go. What could they do? To kill him would only have made
him a martyr — and Caesar was learning that the blood of martyrs
was the seed of yet more. Keep him in jail? He would just preach
to others — he would be the very opposite of a force multiplier.
So Martin went
on to another life. The life of St.
Martin of Tours, Confessor, founder of orders, preacher of the
cross — a life he laid down on November 11, A+D 397 — a life that
beggar Christ has promised will be restored to him when all earthly
kingdoms are swept away.
St. Martin’s heavenly birthday: a fitting day for an Armistice and
an end to war. A fitting day to ponder the things of God and the
things of Caesar. A day to ask how far man can be obeyed — a day
to ask what makes for a just war, what makes for real Christianity
— to ask just when it is time to follow St. Martin’s lead and tell
Caesar that you are willing to trade in your arms and commission
for a jail cell.
H. R. Curtis [send him mail]
is a Lutheran (LCMS) pastor in rural Illinois and the editor
Divine Service Book: A Lutheran Daily Missal, the only English-language
daily missal in the Lutheran tradition. The book is available in