One cold day back in the fourth century, a young Roman soldier on duty with his cavalry unit in northern France rode by the city gates of Amiens on patrol. This soldier was a little unusual–he was a Christian.
Most Roman soldiers of good family (as this one was) were followers of Mithras. And besides, the emperor had legalized Christianity only a few years before. This unusual soldier had defied his parents (not a common thing among ambitious Romans) and started going to church when he was about 10. He wasn’t baptized, though. He was a catechumen, like most adult Christians at that time. The emperor himself was a catechumen.
So back to our soldier on that cold day. Martin (that’s his name) was on patrol, wrapped in his warm uniform cloak. At the city gates, he saw a half-naked beggar, and impulsively drew his sword, cut his cloak in half, and gave half to the beggar. He was only about 18, after all. That night Martin had a dream: Jesus appeared in the beggar’s half-cloak and told the angels, “Look, Martin, the catechumen gave me this cloak.”
Martin woke up, determined to be baptized as soon as he could.
Martin served honorably in the army for a few more years until he resigned his commission, saying that he was a soldier of Christ, not the emperor. And he went on to preach, to teach, and to bring the gospel to western France.When the old bishop of Tours went to his reward, some of Martin’s admirers wanted to make him bishop. Others turned up their noses at him—this old veteran wasn’t refined enough to be their bishop. Martin didn’t want the post, so he thought he’d lie low until they chose someone else.
They made him bishop anyway
But (the story goes) the barn where he took refuge also housed a flock of geese who raised such a fuss that his admirers discovered him. They made him bishop anyway.
Martin, bishop of Tours, has been popular in western Europe for centuries, honored for his kindness to the poor and oppressed and his tireless dedication to peace and justice. Nobles throughout Europe knew that if Bishop Martin came to call, any prisoners they held would have to be set free.
A baby boy born in 1483 was baptized on Martin’s feast day and named after him: Martin Luther.
Bishop Martin served Christ in later life as he had served the emperor in his youth. Veterans Day–which marks Armistice Day, the day when the guns fell silent over northern France after the carnage we now know as World War I–falls on Martin’s day, November 11.
Oh, and that cloak Martin cut up? The story goes that the remnant of the cloak became a treasure of the kings of France, with a priest assigned to take care of it. The Latin word for cloak is cappa, and a little cloak (as the remnant was) is a cappella. The caretakers of the cappella became known as cappellani, or in French, chappelaines – and that’s how we get the word chaplain for clergy attached to the military.
Audrey Riley serves as director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA. You can tell that she likes the story of Martin of Tours and what he did with his cloak.