Today is a day for remembrance: it is the feast day of St. Martin of Tours—our patronal feast day, known as Martinmas. And just a few minutes, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the so-called Great War, which we now know as World War I. So it’s fascinating.
Our patron saint, Martin of Tours, was born to pagan parents from Yugoslavia in the 4th century of the common era, with his father being a senior military officer in the Roman imperial guard. As a child, he grew up in Italy, where his father was stationed, and at age ten it is believed he attended a Christian worship service against his parents’ wishes, and he became a catechumen, or someone undergoing religious instruction to join the Church. Back then, the minimum time for the catechumenate was three years but was often longer.
Then, at 15, Martin was required to join the army as well, and he became a cavalry soldier. It is said that while he was stationed in Gaul, near Amiens, a beggar approached him in the cold and asked for some alms. In response, Martin cut his military cloak in half with his sword. Later that night, Christ appeared to him in a dream, clothed in the half of the cloak he had given the beggar. Martin then determined to be baptized, and he was.
He eventually realized that he felt he could not be a Christian and be a soldier of Rome, and so he requested to be released from his 25-year commitment to the army. This was right before an impending battle, so he was charged with cowardice and thrown into jail. He offered to stand unarmed before the enemy army, holding nothing but a cross, and army officials were ready to take him up on his offer—but the enemy sued to surrender, and so Martins was discharged. He eventually made his vows as a monastic, but gained a reputation for piety and holiness.
The people of Tours decided to make him their bishop, but he wanted nothing of it. So the story goes that he was tricked into the church to be elected bishop on the excuse that someone needed healing. One story claims that he was so reluctant to be elected that he hid in a barn full of geese, and they dragged him out, covered in feathers and probably goose-poop, and finally persuaded him to accept election as bishop. Nonetheless, even though bishop, he still lived in a monastery outside town that he had founded called Marmoutier, where his holiness had attracted several hermits who lived in small cells around him. He was known for travelling to every parish in his diocese once a year, often on foot.
Martin is the patron saint of, among other things, beggars, soldiers and conscientious objectors, winemakers AND recovering alcoholics. He is the patron saint of geese, whose migration is usually simultaneous with his feast day, and although he is that patron saint of France, in England his emblem is a goose, and it is said that traditionally, the geese begin their migration south of St. Martin's Day.
Martinmas is also connected to the end of World War I. Martin remained somewhat popular in France even during the French Republic, but for a while his popularity flagged in France as violent anti-religious sentiment swept across it in the Enlightenment. Until World War I. World War I was a new kind of World War, fully industrialized, and the loss to human life was staggering for that time. Entire villages in England and France lost nearly all of their young men in the fighting.
The horrors of mechanized trench warfare, machine guns, and poison gas left a lasting impression on the survivors, and the experiences of fighting in World War I helped influence an entire generation of writers, including JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, as well as the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Canadian physician and officer John MacCrae wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” after he presided at the funeral for a friend killed at the second battle of Ypres.
As the war dragged to a terrible end, the cease fire eventually was declared at 11:11 am on November 11, 1918—St. Martin’s Day. The French people had a resurgence of piety regarding the saint, with some believing that his intervention had helped spare France from any more of the horrors of the conflict, which was fought largely on French and Belgian soil in the European theatre.
This is why, every time we celebrate St. Martin’s Day, we honor also those who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice upon the fields of battle, even while we fervently give thanks for peace—real peace that is grounded in abundance for all because we realize the interconnectedness of all.
We celebrate not the war, but the peace that brought World War I to an end, while acknowledging that it, tragically, was NOT the “War to End All Wars.”
Here in America, we have modified Armistice Day to a day to honor all veterans, to acknowledge that we still pray for an end to the necessity to send our young people into terrible conflicts. Yet every time I look at the American flag, which represents the ideals for which my grandfather fought in the trenches in World War I, my father and father-in-law and uncle fought for in World War II, for which my other uncle fought for in the Korean conflict, my cousin and my father-of-the-heart fought for in Vietnam, I remember that it has seldom been carried into battle alone.
Every time I look at that flag on this day, especially, I remember the other flags who have stood and continue to stand alongside it in war and in peace, but especially in pursuing true peace and security for all, both here and abroad.
This is the dream of God for our lives: true abundance. True peace. True commitment to fellowship, kinship, the recognition that we are all conjoined, made in the image of God, called to work for the peace and care of everyone.
Our readings from Isaiah today though remind us that our observances must honor the dream of God for our lives. The dream of God for humanity is to study war no more. This is why the reading from Isaiah for today is particularly appropriate. God never desires the sacrifice of life—wars come about due to human decisions. Each one of those poppies, dancing among the crosses in Flanders' fields like drops of blood, remind us that we worship a God of peace and love, not of war.
Our God is the God of all, and calls us to use our resources for the good of others:
Setting the oppressed free,
Feeding the hungry,
Clothing those who are naked,
Housing the homeless.
All of these things require the will to prioritize the dream of God for us as the feast we truly celebrate. But Isaiah goes further: the practices that please God include
Not trying to oppress or disdain others,
Not blaming others, or talking about them behind their backs,
Repairing breaches where we find them in relationship
And working for peace.
The fast that truly pleases God is the sacrifice that makes all people whole. The feast that pleases God is one that is founded on care and empathy for all people, whatever their situation. The fast that pleases God is a fast that leads to a feast. A feast that celebrates the reverence for all life, and seeks to care for the lowliest person among as if that person were the most auspicious person on earth.
May we celebrate, on this St. Martin’s Day, our common commitment to each other, our willingness to care for each other, truly love each other, and to give to each other the compassion and peace that is rooted in our gratitude to God, the Father of Peace, the Son, the Prince of Peace, and the Holy Spirit who sets our hearts ablaze with the wisdom to seek peace and compassion in all we do. May we be today rededicated to the mission of this parish to be a beacon of Christ’s love and true peace in the world, together.
Preached at St. Martin's Episcopal Church- Ellisville, at the 505 on November 10, and the 8:00 and 10:15 services on November 11, 2018, which is both the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours and the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.