Born in Hungary in the forth century, St. Martin of Tours was the son of a high-ranking officer in the Roman army. Around the age of 10 he began attending a Christian church, against the wishes of his pagan parents, eventually becoming an official catechumen. At the age of 15, since he was the son of a Roman army officer, he was required to join the calvary. At the age of 18 while stationed in modern-day France, it was winter when he was approaching a city while on horseback, and came upon a scantily-clad beggar. St. Martin took off his cloak, cut it in two, and gave half of it to the beggar. That night, St. Martin had a dream that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak he gave away, and He said to the angels surrounding Him, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.” St. Martin reportedly awoke to find his robe restored to wholeness, and this confirmed his faith in Christianity.
He was baptized not long after, and went on to evangelize the faith all across the Alps, from Hungary to Austria to Milan. Eventually he reluctantly become the acclaimed bishop of Tours, France. As bishop, he ordered the destruction of pagan temples, altars, and sculptures, converted entire towns of pagans, founded monasteries, established the parish system, cast out demons, and even raised three dead people to life.
In 1916, as France was ravaged by World War I, a devotion to St. Martin was started by the Augustinian Assumptionists. As the patron saint of France, the devotion gained momentum as dioceses from across the country joined together in prayer for the end of the war. When the armistice was signed on St. Martin’s feast day of November 11th, the people of France saw it as a sign of St. Martin’s intercession in bringing about the end of the war.
His cloak is a relic, preserved to this day. During the Middle Ages, his cloak — the cappa Sancti Martini — was carried into battle and oaths were sworn upon it. The priest in charge of taking care of the cloak was called the cappellani, or chapelains in French. As the relic moved from place to place, small, temporary churches were constructed to protect it. People called them a “capella” or “little cloak.” Of course, today, in English, we call military priests “chaplains” and small places of worship “chapels.” But there is something else St. Martin’s legacy gave Christianity. Something a little more profound.
Starting around the 6th century, the celebration of Martinmas on November 11th marked the end of the octave of All Saints, and for farmers it marked the end of the harvest and the preparation for winter. People celebrated with bonfires, songs, and the eating of “St. Martin’s goose”, and the drinking of “St. Martin’s wine.” After celebrating, the early Christians began a new tradition: the beginning of Quadragesima Sancti Martini — the “Forty Days Fast of St. Martin.” Church councils at the time instituted a strict fast on all days except Saturdays and Sundays from Saint Martin’s Day to Epiphany to prepare people spiritually for Christmas. Today, we call this period “Advent.”
We have grown so accustomed to feasting from Thanksgiving to New Year’s that January 1st marks the beginning of countless diets to shed the so-called “holiday pounds” that people tend to accumulate during this time. The endless banquet of turkey, ham, pies, cookies, and candies presented at a never-ending stream of events fill our stomachs and expand our waistlines, while rampant consumerism empties our wallets. Advent seems to be nothing more than a change in liturgical colors, who’s meaning has been lost, buried under the bones of our Thanksgiving turkey. By the time we get to Christmas Day, are we too stuffed, broke, and exhausted to really reflect on what it is we’re celebrating?
It is good to feast, and celebrate saints like St. Martin of Tours. It is good to reflect on what made them saints. But as with every great feast, the next day we need to return to reality and set our minds and hearts to the real work of what is next. So this Advent, let us go to our chapel and kneel before our Lord in the Eucharist, and ask Him to prepare our hearts, to help us empty ourselves during this season of “the little Lent,” so that we may truly be ready to receive Him in glory on Christmas Day.