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Feast of St Martin – Fr. Nicholas King

 

Ninety years ago today, at 11.00am on the 11th day of the eleventh month, after two minutes of silence, King George V dedicated the Cenotaph, newly designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Then the body of the “Unknown Warrior”, one of millions of young men whose remains could never be identified after the dreadful carnage of the “Great War”, was taken in state to lie in Westminster Abbey.

It seems a happy coincidence (except, of course, that there is no such thing as coincidence under the providence of God) that today is also the feast of St Martin of Tours. He was named for Mars, the god of war, and was a 4th century soldier, of whom the legend is told that he encountered a naked beggar, and impulsively cut his military cloak in half and gave it to the man to cover himself. That night, he had a dream in which he saw Christ clad in the half-cloak; and that was apparently the moment of his conversion, the discovery that Christians have always made, that in serving the poor they serve Christ. Martin turned his back on a military career; and when threatened with imprisonment on a charge of cowardice for refusing to fight, offered to go out into the front line carrying no weapons at all; and as it turned out, the invading army turned on their heels and retreated.

Another happy “coincidence” is that the legend is neatly recorded in a relief sculpture by Eric Gill in the only building in Oxford that was designed by Lutyens. As a result of this vision, Martin became a monk and eventually a bishop, and eventually died a most impressive death, not in war, but calmly giving his soul to God on his way back from resolving a squabble between clerics in a particular parish. It is no exaggeration to say that the effects of his ministry are still powerfully detectable in his part of France, 17 centuries later.

The skills and dispositions that make a good soldier are, I suspect, the same as those that make a good saint. The readings for today give us a hint as to how it goes. In the first reading, Paul, now an old man and in prison (and undeniably looking for sympathy as part of his strategy), is endeavouring to persuade his friend Philemon to treat a fellow-Christian, who happens to be a slave, not as a slave, a thing, a possession, but as a fellow human being, a fellow-saint. It is a charming letter, read only today, alas, in the entire year of the Catholic lectionary; and it is certainly the place to start your study of St Paul. In the letter, Philemon is congratulated for “giving rest and refreshment for the bowels of the saints”. It is a most delicate, and presumably irresistible (or it would not have survived – Philemon would have torn it up and thrown it into the trash-can), piece of persuasion. What Philemon is invited to do is to see things, and people, differently, and not visit upon Onesimus (the slave in question), the violence that he is entitled to receive and Philemon to administer. And we have, all of us, to recognise inside us those tendencies to violence, those moments when hitting someone or killing them or chopping bits off them, seems, deceptively, to be the only answer.

Violence is also in the air in the gospel that you have just heard: Jesus is being badgered by Pharisees to say “When is the Kingdom of God coming?”; and his answer is that “It doesn’t come by watching”. Instead of trying to read the cosmic weather-forecast and give the definite timetable that they are looking for, he suggests to them, and to us, that “The Kingdom of God is within you”, that is to say, inside you; or “among you”, that is to say somewhere in that group of religiously-minded Pharisees, or, come to that, religiously-minded members of Worcester College, Oxford. And sometimes, Jesus reminds us, it will be obscure: “you will long to see a day of the Son of Man and won’t see it. People will tell you, ‘Look! There!’ or ‘Look! Here!’; but he will come like a flash of lightning, from one end of the sky to the other”. Then the reading ended on an ominous tone, “First the Son of Man has to suffer much violence, and be rejected by this generation”. We shiver, but should take comfort in Jesus’ certainty that God is in charge.

And what of you, who will shortly march forth from this college and university to run the world? The lesson is clear: your generation must eschew the seductions of violence; like Philemon, you must learn to see other people as human beings and not as things. Like Jesus, and like St Martin of Tours, I regret to say, you must be prepared to endure violence visited upon you. But like both Martin and Jesus, you must know that God is in charge of our world, with all its shadows and frailties and ambiguities. And, one day, for sure, you will find yourself clothing the homeless and naked beggar and discovering that it was, after all, Christ whom you were serving; one day, it will become true that in the prophet’s words, “They shall not learn war any more”.

Fr. Nicholas King
11th November 2010