Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Fr. John T. Zuhlsdorf
Today is the feast of Saint, er umm "Mister" Christopher. This beloved figure "lost", as it were, his status as saint when the Holy See made a determination to remove from the universal calendar some certain figures (e.g., "Miss Philomena") whose historicity was questionable. The Church has never said that a person cannot venerate these figures, of course, but they are generally not be celebrated at the altar.
In any event, here is the terse entry in the Martyrologium Romanum:
2. In Lycia, sancti Christophori, martyris.
His story is fascinating he was a giant 18 cubits high, the two medieval portrayals of him I know best, the one at Albury in the old parish church and the one at Toledo Cathedral in Spain show him as a huge giant striding over a door and carrying the Christ child on his shoulder. The door association is presumably a link to his patronage of travelers.
In Byzantine iconography he was often represented as having a dog's head, presumably in order to emphasise his distance from civilised (Christian) mankind, symbolising the baser aspects of humanity.
Originally he was named, "Offero" or "Reprobus", he swore he would only serve the strongest being there was and settled for the Devil but then hearing the devil was afraid of the cross of Christ he set out to find Christ. A hermit told him to go and carry people at a nearby river and Christ would come to him. Eventually a little child came to him. He found the child the heaviest person he had ever carried, the child revealed he was Jesus and he was so heavy because he carried the sins of the world on his shoulders. Thus Offero became Christo-phorous, Christ-carrier. Christopher. The Lord baptised him and told him to plant his staff on the bank, it immediately became a fruiting tree and many were converted. A local pagan king was so enraged by this, he had him tortured and killed.
Erasmus condemned devotion to St Christopher in "In Praise of Folly", but the truth of the matter is he is one of those "everyman" saints, who though the actual details of his life are lost actually sums up the experience of all Christians and of every Christian life. The iconography of the story are wellworth meditating on, as are so many of the apparently "fanciful" lives of the saints, if we treat them in an allegorical or semi-allegorical way, we will learn, like the men and woment of the middle ages, to trawl a very rich understanding of the spiritual life.
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