Saturday, November 10, 2007

Martinmas: Remembrance as Redemption


When the year 1918 was drawing to a close and the Great War in Europe likewise, the signers of the proposed Armistice scheduled that immensely significant event for November 11th. It was not a random choice, or just a cute idea about a conjunction of elevens. They, less than a hundred years ago, were immersed in a culture of feasts and seasons that we have largely forgotten. They knew that Martin was patron saint of soldiers, and in Europe St Martin’s Day – Martinmas - was a sort of second Mardi Gras of the year, a widely observed feast prior to the Advent fast. The signing of the peace agreement was timed to evoke these remembered images of courage and of celebration.

There was always a degree of irony about Martin being patron of soldiers, because he had actually laid down his arms after his conversion. Even though the Roman Empire had Christian emperors by this point, and many felt Roman wars were Christian wars, Martin actually saw the vocation of a soldier as incompatible with his faith. This was, even then, a reminder of the quickly-receding era of the martyrs, whose peaceful witness to their true king was a paradoxical victory over the swords of their executioners. Martin has been seen as the first Christian saint who was recognized as such despite not having been martyred himself.

Martin’s consistent stand against sanctioned violence was pursued into a quiet different area of conflict, after he became first a monastic leader and then bishop of Tours. The Church in the newly-Christian empire of the fourth century found itself able to use the tools of the state against religious dissenters as well as external enemies. Some bishops leapt eagerly at this opportunity, wanting the state to fight Christian heretics within as well as pagans outside.

A Spanish bishop named Priscillian, accused of promoting excessive forms of self-denial, was the first victim of this enthusiasm. Martin, although not actually sympathetic to Priscillian, urged that the state not involve itself, and that violence not be the means to overcome such theological conflicts – but he lost, and Priscillian and six companions were executed, the first of many thousands of Christians to die at the hands of Christian authority. Martin was dismayed, and protested against the acts of the emperor and the conniving of his fellow-bishops who had caused this crime. It was a tragedy from which he never really recovered.

Both these stories, Martin the young soldier laying down his arms and Martin the mature bishop opposing judicial violence, amount to his jolting the memories of his contemporaries, with less than full success, to something fundamental about the use of power and the centrality of peace in Christian tradition.

Redemption, as Christians understand it, could be seen as a form of remembrance. The human state of alienation and loss, characterized by violence towards creation and one another, reflects a loss of memory. Faith likewise is the personal pursuit of a thread of remembrance, remembering Jesus, remembering Moses and Miriam, remembering Abraham and Sarah, tracing the thread of faith back to God’s originating love. Human beings called to live creatively and powerfully and lovingly with all of creation, caring for the world and for each other.

Sin is, so to speak, a form of amnesia. It is our collective forgetfulness of our origin and our call. Our condition, our failure to act peaceably, is a kind of forgetting who we really are and what we are really for.

There is another aspect of remembrance even more important to religious faith. During another great conflict, the English Civil War of the 17th century, an officer is said to have prayed thus before a battle: “O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day; if I forget thee, do not thou forget me”.
The need to recall a story of original peace is based on the faith that there is one who remembers us. The call to remembrance is ultimately about recollecting this ancient and present and future hope.