Here is what the world knows about Veterans Day, I hope. 11 November was originally Armistice Day, from the armistice that ended hostilities in the First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, GMT (or UTC), in 1918. Later, with another and even worse World War having been fought despite a War to End All Wars, in 1954 Congress changed the observance to include all veterans, hence Veterans Day.
What's An Armistice?
The English word armistice is transliterated from the Latin armistitium, which literally means a stopping of arms. It's a truce, a cessation of hostilities. Now, if you're one of those getting shot at, that's a good thing -- but, it's not a comprehensive social and political solution to what led to the hostilities, and not even necessarily permanent, let alone that universal aspiration of beauty pageant contestants, world peace. Which means, hostilities may well resume at some point. And always have.
Here is what the world probably does not know or care about. 11 November is the feast day of St Martin of Tours, who is the patron saint of, guess what, soldiers! Hmm.
Who Is St Martin of Tours and Why Is He Patron Of Soldiers?
Martin was born a pagan around 316 in what is now Hungary, and was what is now called a military brat. Then as now, military families move a lot, and Martin grew up where his father was stationed, at Ticinum, which is now Pavia, Italy. His father was a tribune, which is roughly equivalent to a modern colonel, in the crack Roman unit the Imperial Horse Guard (equites singulari Augusti). Being a military kid, he was named Martin, from Mars, the Roman god of war.
The year of his birth, 316, was also the year it became legal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, but it was a decidedly minority religion, and in the army the cult of Mithras was common. When Martin was ten, he ticked off his parents by starting to go to church and taking instruction as a catechumen (you know, the Sunday School, mid-week, etc of the time). However in 331 at 15 he joined the army, as sons of senior officers did, in a provincial cavalry unit (ala, or wing) and about 334 was stationed at Samarobriva, the Roman name for Amiens, in northern France.
One day, by the city gate of Amiens, he passed a man freezing on the road, tore his military issue cloak in half and gave half to him. That night, he had a dream seeing Jesus wearing the half a cloak. This shook him up, and he got baptised that year, 334, at 18. He remained in the army, but in 336 when it looked like the army and the local Gauls were about to engage at Worms, he declared he was a soldier of Christ and could not fight. He was thrown in the brig (military jail) and charged with cowardice. He offered to be in the front lines but unarmed, and the army was going to do just that with him, but the Gauls made peace with Rome and the battle did not happen.
After that Martin was discharged from the service. He went to Tours, and began to study with the renowned, even in his own time, St Hilary. Hilary was a convert too, and he vigourously opposed the Arian "Christianity" of the Visigoths, and was elected by the faithful of Poitiers as their first bishop (they did that then), married with a daughter and all (they did that then too). Martin set about combating the Arian heresy too, which about did the church in at the time, thinking he was God's soldier now.
He and Hilary were both forced into exile by persecution. Martin lived as a hermit but when Hilary was restored in 361 Martin joined him. He started a monastery in nearby Liguge, which is still there as the now Benedictine (of course) St Martin's Abbey, from which he preached Christianity all around the area. Later, the people of Tours made him their third bishop when the old one died in 371 and he was finally persuaded to accept. From there he soldiered on to preach the true Gospel in Gaul, and, to get away from the attention of his office, he established another monastery, Marmoutier, which also later became Benedictine, on the other side of the River Loire in Tours, about 372, which lasted until the French Revolution in 1799 and is largely in ruins now.
A good insight into Martin is something that happened in 385. Remember that 385 is just five years since the Imperial Edict of Thessalonica defined what is and is not the Catholic Church, and made the Catholic Church the state religion, which makes heresy a state offence punishable by the Empire. In 385 Priscillian, bishop of Avila in Spain, and his followers were brought before the Emperor, Magnus Maximus, on charges of false doctrine, heresy, stemming from their severe asceticism, and the penalty was beheading. But Martin, though he was quite opposed to Priscillian, hurried to Trier, where the Imperial court held forth at the time, not Rome, to protest the sentence as both unjust in itself and an unjust imposition of civil power in a church matter. The Emperor relented, but, after Martin left the court beheaded them anyway. This was the first time ever that a Christian executed another Christian for heresy, and Martin was absolutely disconsolate after he heard the news and urged mercy toward Priscillian's followers.
Martin died 8 November 397 and was buried 11 November, which became his feast day, though the date of death is the usual practice for determining a feast day. He was widely venerated for centuries, which I will not go into except for this, soon after his death it became the custom to begin a 40 day fast in preparation for Christmas, the quadragesima sancti Martini or St Martin's Fast, with his feast day being the last non-fasting day until Christmas. This eventually shortened into what we know as Advent now. More on that in the "Advent" post coming up.
An Armistice on St Martin's Day 1918.
So, 11 November, feast of the patron of soldiers for centuries, date of Armistice Day, now Veterans Day? Hmm. Coincidence, or one of those little things that pokes through from what is beyond the surface? Wanna know something else just a little too co-incidental? The military campaign that led to the armistice is the Hundred Days Offensive, aka the Grand Offensive, from 8 August to 11 November 1918. Guess where the Hundred Days Offensive started. With the Battle of Amiens, where the Roman officer Martin had given the freezing beggar the cloak. Hmm.
The armistice of 11 November 1918 turned out to be just that, a cessation of hostilities. What was fought as The War to End All Wars would become World War One, as hostilities resumed in an even worse World War Two. Along with the millions of lives lost, millions more lives were forever changed, and, something changed in what might be called the spirit of Man too. The great sense in the age leading into these cataclysms that Man was on an upward spiral of progress toward an enlightened future lay rotting like the wreck of that great expression of the age the RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic.
The "Titans" had lost, but unlike the mythological battle, in which the Olympians were the victors and established a new world order, this time who would be the victorious Olympians, or if there even were victors or Olympians, was not clear. The old world order, and its certainties both temporal and eternal, were gone. Man began to speak of life as absurd, and the search for "meaning" was on, amid an apparently essentially meaningless existence. One could simply accept that life is absurd and meaningless; one could understand that meaning is something Man, or each man, creates for himself; one could deny the whole thing and remain irrelevant and inauthentic, either by holding on to a religious faith from the old order's certainties, or equally, by holding on to the secular faith in the progress and perfectibility of Man or the restoration of the old political order.
Increasingly, as what was to end all cataclysms only led to further and worse cataclysms, Man spoke of Angst, anxiety, in which Man on the one hand yearns for the certainties and meanings of the old world order but on the other knows they are but lost illusions that no longer work.
The resolution? There isn't one. That embodiment of the old order, the Titanic, sank 15 April 1912, 103 years ago. The spark that would light the keg of the War To End All Wars, the assassination of Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand along with his wife Herzogin Sophie, on 28 June 1914, was 100 years ago last year. And, 97 years after the armistice, in 2015 hostilities continue amid the wreckage of the arrangements worked out nearly a century ago following the War to End All Wars in Southeast Europe, the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent.
One hundred years on, more or less, from the collapse of the old world order and its temporal and eternal certainties, their loss has now become normal, and what was once sensed as a loss or void, is no longer sensed as such, because they were never known anyway. Angst, anxiety, is the norm and no longer experienced as anxiety, and, though the void which produced it remains, the void is not sensed as any void at all. We become as a people like a person with Alzheimer's, prisoners of the present, no longer recognising who and what we are.
So the Twelve Titans fell to the Twelve Olympians, who this time apparently aren't going to show up. If Genesis isn't witness to Man as fallen, the world history of Man surely is. A history filled with the universal intuition that Man is less than he is meant to be or can be, a history filled with however many religious, philosophical, social and political programmes to accomplish his fulfillment -- and a history filled with the dashing of all of them.
There's twelve something else who had something to say about that. The Twelve Apostles. They got told to go into the world with the message. The message is:
- that Man just isn't going to get himself out of his self-constructed mess,
- that God has seen that and became Man in Jesus to die to pay for all that and rise again, so that Man can by the gift and power of God repent of his own self-destructive efforts and start over, be reborn in faith in the One God has sent,
- that because of Him one can be washed clean by being covered in his sacrificial blood, and even amid the brokenness of this world live in partial experience of that which is beyond it, dying with him to rise with him.
That message continues to-day as God calls and feeds Man in the church wherever his Word is properly preached and his Sacraments properly administered.
Interesting that in that context, on 11 November, St Martin's Day, in 1483, Mr and Mrs Luther brought their day old baby boy to be baptised, and following the traditional custom he was given the name of the saint of the day -- Martin Luther, who like his namesake would devote his life to preaching the true Gospel against false doctrine and corruption from state control of the church.
So on 11 November, Armistice Day now Veterans Day and also St Martin's Day, as we rightly remember and celebrate in gratitude those who have served to preserve and defend our temporal freedom, let us also remember that armistice is the best we can do, the hostilities cease for a while only to resume, and let us remember and celebrate in gratitude Him who gained our true spiritual freedom for now and all eternity, who gives peace not as the world gives peace, but for real and for ever.
Pacem relinquo vobis, pacem meam do vobis. Peace I leave thee, my peace I give thee. (John 14:27, used in the liturgy after the Agnus Dei before Communion)
Here is the Collect from the mass propers for the feast of St Martin of Tours:
Lord God of hosts, who clothed Your servant Martin the soldier with the spirit of sacrifice, and set him as a bishop in Your Church to be a defender of the catholic faith: Give us grace to follow in his holy steps, that at the last we may be found clothed with righteousness in the dwellings of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.
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