I was recently commissioned to paint some saints for a gift company who will be making products from my work next year (more on that later…). One of the saints requested was St. Christopher, and even though I attend a “St. Christopher” church, I have to admit I really didn’t know much about him. There are thousands of Catholic saints…who can keep track? I knew he was the patron saint of travelers, but that’s about it.
Turns out he’s a bit of a mystery. The name Christopher means “Christ-bearer,” and may, in fact, refer more to his legend than his actual name. Rumor has it he was a fearsome-looking, large Canaanite man called Reprobus. He may also be one-in-the-same as St. Menas, the patron saint of travelers in the Coptic tradition. Before the church organized its canonization process in the 15th century, saints could apparently be named by popular approval. Consequently, some saints are merely legend or mythology, and some were incorporated from other religions. While the mysterious Christopher seemingly lived and was martyred in the second and third century, he wasn’t accepted into Roman Catholic tradition until the 1500s…and then dropped from the official calendar in 1970 due to the pesky problem that no one is sure who he really was.
Real or not, he still remains a popular future with a devoted following. Why? Because he embodies the spiritual journey we all travel in our quest for holiness and validation.
Christopher’s call to sainthood began with youthful ideals, leading him on a few misguided turns along the way. As a young man, he set out to serve “the greatest king there was.” In modern terms, he might have aspired to reality-TV fame. For the time he lived in, that accolade was to serve the king of Canaan. I’m sure he had great ambitions of becoming a mighty warrior, famous for strength and valor. The king was his ticket.
Then one day he witnessed the king crossing himself to ward off the devil. Clearly the devil must be greater than the king… so he left to find the him. Disillusionment with an idol. Rebellion. “I’ll show you, king.” We’ve all been there. So he found a band of marauders whose leader called himself the Devil and started hanging out with them, causing trouble. Then one day he realized that life had its limits as he watched “the devil” avoid a wayside cross in the road out of fear. Clearly there was one more powerful than the devil, one who could promise a more rewarding life, and he left to find the bearer of that cross…Christ.
Clearly there was one more powerful than the devil, one who could promise a more rewarding life, and he left to find the bearer of that cross…Christ.
Next he met a kindly old hermit (there’s always a hermit) who instructed him in the ways of Christianity and suggested he was well-qualified to spend his life helping people cross a particularly precarious part of the local river as a service to Christ. So he began a life of this simple, albeit dangerous task, keeping river-crossers alive and well. One day, a child requested a ride atop his shoulders. As Christopher was carrying him across the treacherous rapids, it seemed to him the child grew heavier and heavier, almost too much to bear. When he finally reached the far shore, he said to the child, “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” And the child replied, “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” The child then vanished.
Christopher had his encounter with “the greatest king”, in the most unlikely form he expected… a helpless child.
And so we all travel through life, following our hearts, fighting our egos, swayed by the choices we make. And if we’re lucky, we find purpose in the simple things we were designed by God to do…the things that brought us Joy as children. And through service to that simple vocation, we encounter Christ who was traveling with us all along.
St. Christopher’s feast day is celebrated (unofficially) on July 25.