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Morning over the bay

The Legend of Christopherus

Hans Thoma (Adapted)

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  • Cathy Peterson

    I heard part of this story as a child attending Catholic School; we know the man as St. Christopher. I really appreciate knowing "the rest of the story" as well as all the other wonderful stories, articles and resources provided by Plough.

Once upon a time a boy was born, and his parents named him Opherus. He was a very strong boy and did not know what to do with all his strength. Even as a young child he broke tools and agricultural equipment. His father often was at a loss for how to occupy him, because in spite of his good will he did more harm than his work was worth. All his father’s tools were too weak for his strong arms. You should have seen his muscles!

By the time he became a young man, Opherus looked like a giant. One day his father sent him to the fields to plow. Since the horses were too slow for Opherus, he set them loose and pushed the plow through the field himself at great speed. After a few hours the plow fell to pieces. His father was sad because Opherus always meant well; he was simply too strong. He said to his son, “Opherus, you must serve a greater and stronger master, so that you can use your strength in a right and proper way.”

So Opherus left home. He traveled from land to land, from town to town, and everywhere he asked where the mightiest lord was to be found. At last he came to a king’s court, where a young lad told him that this king was the mightiest far and wide. Opherus had himself led to the throne, and there he offered his services.

Now on that very day the king had summoned all the knights of his country to form an army, because a neighboring king had invaded and burnt down a town. The king intended to send a great force against the invader. When he saw the powerful Opherus he said, “You have come at the moment of my greatest need. You shall be above all my soldiers, and with you I shall win every battle.”

With all speed the royal armorer forged a gigantic sword for Opherus, for no other sword was nearly big enough for him. The very next day the king went off to battle, with Opherus leading the troops.

On the third day of the battle, a messenger raced back to the palace and announced, “Our army has gained the victory! It was wonderful to behold how Opherus fought – there was hardly anything left for the other soldiers to do. The enemy fled from the sweep of his gigantic sword and was scattered in the neighboring mountains. The invader is vanquished!”

Victory wreaths were hung from the gates and towers of the palace. Bells were rung throughout the town. The king commanded that the table in the great hall be set for a feast of celebration.

In the evening the hall was lit with many lights and the feasting commenced. A harper sang to the music of the strings, and the best talent of the court performed sword dances. Opherus sat beside the king. But he noticed that, as the harper played and sang a song in which the devil was mentioned, the king unobtrusively made the sign of the cross over his brow.

“That is odd,” Opherus thought to himself.

The singing ended, and the festive throng lifted their goblets and drank with great cheer. When the king asked Opherus how he had liked the song, he replied, “There is one thing I am wondering about, Your Majesty. Why did you make the sign on your brow during the song?”

“Oh,” replied the king, “I do that whenever I hear the name of the devil!”

“Well,” Opherus persisted, “is the devil’s power superior to yours?”

“I rule over just one country, but the devil has dominion over the whole world!” replied the king.

Never having heard of the devil before, Opherus thought to himself, “If there is another who is mightier than this king, I shall go and find him. I want to serve the very greatest king.”

The next day Opherus said farewell, even though the king was unwilling to see him go. He wandered through the countries of the world. Everywhere, he asked where the devil’s kingdom was, but no one would tell him. Indeed, many people took fright at the question, at which his respect for the unknown king grew even greater.

One day when Opherus was making his way through a deep forest, a stranger came up to him from behind. Opherus at once asked him, “Wayfarer, can you tell me where I may find the devil, who people say is the most powerful king on earth?”

“He is walking beside you: I am he,” replied the stranger.

“Is it true that you have power over the whole world?”

“That is correct,” answered the devil.

“Then allow me to be your servant, Your Majesty!”

And that is how Opherus became a faithful servant of the devil. In the service of evil he did terrible things, but he was glad because he had found a strong master.

One day the devil took Opherus to a building site for a new chapel. After weeks of labor, the rafters and roof-timbers were finally in place, and bright ribbons decorated a little fir-tree set on the gable-end. It was evening, and the workers had already left, intending to tile the roof the following morning.

“Strike it down!” cried the devil, pointing to the building. Immediately Opherus uprooted a tree and struck the roof with it, smashing the walls so that not one stone remained upon another.

“You have done your work well,” said the devil, grinning.

When the workmen came to the chapel next morning, they stared sadly at the ruins of the building.

“That has been done by the Evil One,” exclaimed one of them. “Let us set up a cross here on the path before we resume building. That will keep him away.”

They did as the man directed, and set up a wooden cross in the middle of the road leading up to the chapel ruins. Then, before setting to work to restore the building, they sang a hymn.

After some time, when the walls and roof had been restored over the holy place, the devil returned with Opherus. But when he came near the cross the builders had erected, he trembled, sprang aside, and made a wide circuit around it. Opherus stopped, surprised.

“Tell me, Your Majesty: why did you jump aside from the cross in the path?”

“Do not ask, but strike the roof. Look, the tiles are already on it.”

“I will not strike even one blow unless you explain the meaning of the cross.”

“The cross is the sign of a great lord, whose name I dare not speak,” the devil replied.

“Is his name so dangerous that even you cannot mention it?” asked Opherus. “Is this other lord mightier than the devil?”

Then the devil sidled up close and whispered, “He is the one whose power is supreme in earth and in heaven. But ask no more. Come, strike the roof!”

“If there is a lord who has power over not only earth but also heaven, then surely he is the greatest king, and him only will I serve,” said Opherus; and the devil left him, cursing.

Early next morning the workmen arrived. They found Opherus asleep within the chapel walls. Awakened by their noise, he jumped up, and pointing to the wooden cross asked, “To what king does this sign belong?”

They answered, “The king’s name is Christ.”

Opherus forsook the devil that very moment and began seeking Christ. He inquired everywhere if anyone had heard of him or knew where he could be found. As he was searching, lonely and burdened with many evil deeds, Opherus met a hermit, who told him that if he wanted to find Christ, he must first find remorse and repentance. But Opherus told the hermit he wanted to do more than just sit and repent.

The hermit replied: “Listen then to my advice. If you wish to find Christ, you must serve mankind with all your strength. Do you see the broad river down there? It has no bridge, yet every day many wayfarers wish to cross. Go down there, build a hut by the stream, and ferry people over on your strong shoulders. If you do this out of love, you may find what you seek.”

For many years, Opherus did as the hermit said. He did not spare himself; day or night he was ready to help the travelers who passed. He built himself a little hut at the edge of the river, and if someone called, he carried them across the dangerous waters. But in all this time, his longing to find Christ grew stronger.

Christopherus, Easter story social sharing image.It happened once on a very stormy night that he heard a voice crying, “Opherus, Opherus, carry me over.” He left his house and searched up and down the riverbank, but found no one. So he returned to his hut and fell asleep again. But the voice called again, coming to him weakly through the tempest: “Opherus, Opherus, carry me over.” Again he went out, but no one was there. Thinking it must be the wind, he lay down again. But before long he heard the voice a third time. It sounded at first like a cry, and then he heard his name through the wind: “Opherus, Opherus, come carry me over the water.”

This time he found a small child huddled on the riverbank. He lifted the little boy onto his shoulder, where he seemed quite light; but when he entered the water, the child became increasingly heavier. Soon the burden grew so great that Opherus almost broke down under its weight. He cried out, “Oh, little child, you seem to be so very heavy – it is as if I were carrying the whole earth on my shoulders.”

Then the child answered, “You not only carry the earth and the heavens, but you carry him who bears the whole need of the world upon himself. I am Jesus Christ, your King whom you seek.”

And the child spoke further to Opherus, “From now on you will fear neither death nor the devil. You will walk through the suffering of this world and your name will be Christ-Opherus, which means ‘bearer of Christ.’ Your soul will be illumined with the love of God, and you will show mercy to men.”

Then the child disappeared; but Christophorus obeyed his command and went out to the people of the earth. Wherever he went, he witnessed to the love and power of the child, his King.

Many of his old friends did not like the change in Opherus. They began to persecute him and drive him away, for they did not want to hear his message. Finally, their hatred became so strong that they banded together and killed him. But his voice and his challenge to become carriers of Christ could not be killed.

Let us open our ears, then, so that we too may hear the voice calling us to carry the King over.


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A woodcut by Lisa Toth depicting an elderly man carrying a small child on his shoulders to illustrate the Easter story Christoperus.
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easter stories cover This short story is taken from Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season.
“This thoughtfully curated collection is remarkable for its range and breadth ... A reminder of the great Easter themes of transformation, reconciliation, and the triumph of life over death” (National Catholic Register).
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