When the armistice ending World War I was signed on November 11 – the event we celebrate on Veterans Day, also known as Armistice or Remembrance Day – devout French patriots thanked Saint Martin of Tours, patron saint of soldiers and of France. November 11 is Martin’s feast day, after all, and French kings had carried his relics into battle since the sixth century. Surely, they believed, the saint deserved credit for helping France to victory over the Germans.
Certain facts in Martin’s life make his post-war popularity understandable. Born in 316 AD in present-day Hungary, Martin followed his father, a cavalry officer, into military service under the aggressively anti-Christian emperor Julian. At that time, Christianity was a minority religion, and Christians in the military were especially rare. Yet even after his baptism at age twenty Martin continued to serve two more years in his unit.
But here is where Martin proves complicated as a soldier saint. For when it came time to fight, he refused. According to his friend and biographer Sulpicius Severus, he made this dangerous decision on the day before what looked to be a major battle with the Gauls. Summoned to appear before Emperor Julian, he told him: “Until now I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God. I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.”
Furious, the emperor accused Martin of cowardice and condemned him to die by being exposed unarmed to the enemy. Unexpectedly, the next day the Gauls sued for peace, and Martin was discharged from the army – not as a military hero, but dishonorably as what we’d now call a conscientious objector.
It’s unlikely that the French patriots of 1918 had this part of Martin’s story in mind when hailing him as a nationalist hero. Moving forward to today, what of the military-themed events this November 11? Is it just a perverse accident that the feast day of this early pacifist is used to honor soldiers and veterans?
No, for at least two reasons. First, because despite Martin’s own refusal to shed blood, he never claimed a moral superiority over his army comrades. As Martin’s biographer records: “He showed exceeding kindness towards his fellow soldiers, and held them in wonderful affection…” It’s entirely fitting that on this Veterans Day, each of us should find ways to show the same kindness and affection to the men and women who fought in war.
A second and more important reason is contained in Martin’s own words: “I am the soldier of Christ.” By honoring the heroism of soldiers past and present who have served their nation, we will understand better what it means to be Christ’s soldier. This applies especially to those of us who, like Martin, believe that Jesus forbids us to use force for any reason, even in personal or national self-defense. In our Christian discipleship, are we prepared to sacrifice our lives, health, and happiness as many soldiers have done? Do we exhibit the same level of courage, discipline, and loyalty?
Martin did – his warm and wholehearted discipleship makes him feel like our contemporary, despite the seventeen centuries that separate us. He did not live by rules, but out of the heart of the gospel, inspired by a call he received from Christ as a young man. His friend Severus – himself one of Martin’s converts – recounts the story of how this happened.
One midwinter day, Martin was riding past the gate of the city of Amiens, wearing only his armor and a simple uniform. It was an especially severe winter, with many deaths from the extreme cold. He encountered a beggar poorly dressed, who was piteously beseeching passersby to help him. No one took any notice of him, but instead pushed quickly by.
On seeing this, Martin felt that God had left him responsible for this man. Yet what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak he was wearing, for he had already given away the rest of his clothing to others similarly in need. Lacking any alternative, he took his sword, divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave half to the poor man, using the other half to partly clothe himself.
Bystanders laughed to see the half-naked soldier. But other onlookers’ consciences were struck, realizing that they had done nothing for the poor man although they could have done so at far less sacrifice than Martin had made.
That night when Martin fell asleep, he had a dream: Christ was standing before him, dressed in the piece of cloak he had given the beggar. He gazed on him a long time. Then he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the surrounding crowd of angels: "Martin, who is not yet even baptized, clothed me with this robe."
Upon waking, Martin resolved to give himself to Christ and had himself baptized. He would continue to serve in his unit at the request of his commanding officer up until his confrontation with Emperor Julian two years later. Later he would preach the gospel fearlessly, travelling from town from town. Many miracles are reported.
How can we follow the example of this man of practical action? Like him, we can each help someone in need at the cost of personal sacrifice. Like him, we can be fearless in witnessing to Christ’s teachings on peacemaking, purity and marriage, forgiveness, freedom from materialism, and compassion. And we can find ways to encourage one another to be soldiers of Christ – wholeheartedly and full-time. Then, as Severus wrote, we also “shall be roused to the pursuit of true knowledge, and heavenly warfare, and divine virtue.”