November 11th has become a famous date in the calendar for us. Some dates are like that, firmly associated with something special, whether sad or happy. December 25th for example - we all know what happens then. April 1st – April fools day. November 5th – Bonfire night. More recently September 11th has acquired its own notoriety – we can’t think of that date now without remembering those awful scenes of the destruction of the Twin Towers.
November 11th, for almost a century, though, has been a day for remembering the courage and the suffering of those caught up in war.
But long before that happened this day was already a significant date in the Church’s calendar, and in the popular calendar too – one of those dates that everyone would have known, because it is also St Martin’s Day. In many parts of Europe it is still marked very thoroughly with all sorts of traditions of its own. There are special meals and lantern-lit processions. There are gifts and sweets for children – so they have a vested interest in keeping it going!
In Britain though Remembrance Day rapidly displaced the popular observance of St Martin. And though it is still his feast day in the Church’s calendar, I doubt whether most are aware of that at all.
You might be wondering why I am telling you all this. A long dead saint probably doesn’t seem very relevant to today’s solemn remembrance of those killed in war. But actually it is a very interesting coincidence that these two commemorations fall on the same day. St Martin, you see, was originally a Roman soldier, born in the early 300’s AD, and he has long been regarded as one of the patron saints of soldiers, along with St George. Oddly, though, his claim to fame wasn’t his courage in battle or his military skill, it was the fact that when he became a Christian, a minority, persecuted faith at the time, he laid down his arms and refused to fight at all. On the eve of a battle against the Gauls he announced "I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight." His military bosses accused him of cowardice, but to prove them wrong Martin volunteered to stand unarmed on the frontline the next day, facing certain death. His superiors were very happy to let him – that would show anyone else who had similar ideas what the result would be. That night, though, the Gauls unexpectedly surrendered, and Martin was spared. He left the army and eventually became Bishop of Tours, in Gaul, and served the very people he had refused to fight against for the rest of his life.
Most of the early Christians would have made the same decision as Martin did in those circumstances. There are many similar stories of soldier saints who refused to fight, and it wasn’t a surprising decision. The Roman army was the body, after all, which enforced the persecution of Christians, so how could a Christian fight for it? And it was an army dedicated to the expansion of Roman glory and wealth, not to the pursuit of justice. This was a world where raw power ruled, where might was right, and that was something which Jesus had stood firmly against, as we were reminded in our Gospel reading. Of course Martin laid down his weapons. How could he do otherwise?
But even if we understand that, we might wonder if Martin is really a suitable saint for this day. After all, even a hundred years ago, his actions would have got him shot at dawn. Has he got anything to say to us today? I think he has, both to those in the armed forces and for the rest of us, as we face the moral complexities of war, and I’d like to give you two suggestions for what that message might be.
The first is that Martin’s life challenges the idea, so often expressed, that “all’s fair in love and war.” I’ve no idea where that saying comes from, but you often hear people use it when they want to justify dodgy dealing or moral compromises. The problem is that “all’s fair in love and war” is dangerous nonsense in both cases. In fact, it is the times when we are pushed to the limits emotionally – love and war - when it matters most that we know what is right and wrong and stick to it. It’s all too easy at those moments to be swept off course and do things which we regret later. Of course war requires people to hurt and to kill. We ask our armed forces to do things which we wouldn’t dream of sanctioning in civilian life, and it is service personnel who bear the cost of that and are often haunted by it, even if was legitimate and necessary force. That is why the work of the British Legion, Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and other organisations which care for those we have asked so much of is so important. But increasingly, and rightly, the world has become watchful in war, insisting that force should be proportionate, that wars are fought in a just cause, as a last resort, and that enemies are treated with dignity and compassion in defeat. All is, in fact, not fair, in love and war. Leaders who forget that now find themselves answering for it at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Individual servicemen and women find themselves in a court of law if they misuse their power. This sort of accountability has been a long time coming, but St Martin knew about it 1700 years ago. It mattered what cause you were fighting for, he proclaimed; each person, he said, was responsible for their own decisions. Winning at all costs, glorying in power for its own sake, “my country, right or wrong”; these were attitudes he rejected, attitudes which could never lead to anything good in the long-term for individuals, nations or for the world. They were no part of Christian faith, no part of what God wanted for any of his children.
The second thing Martin’s life reminds us of follows on from this. Laying down his weapons went against everything he’d had been brought up to value. Martin was a soldier through and through. It was in his blood. His father was a soldier, and he had grown up in army camps. Like children of military families throughout the ages he was shaped by that highly disciplined environment, often on the move, aware of death and danger, but aware too of the camaraderie and pride of military life. That military ethos was even there in his name; Martin comes from Mars, the Roman God of war. In any case, the sons of soldiers were automatically drafted into the army, so Martin knew what his destiny was. But from an early age he had also felt drawn to Christian faith, moved by its challenge to care for the vulnerable. There is a famous story that a few years before he left the army, Martin had come across a beggar, shivering in the snow by the city gates. He took his precious military cloak and cut it in two, giving half to the beggar. The beggar was very grateful, but the crowd around him ridiculed Martin who now looked pretty silly in his half-cloak. Perhaps Martin himself wondered whether this gesture had been a stupid one, because that night he had a dream. He dreamt he saw the courts of heaven, full of angels arrayed in splendour. In the middle of them all was Jesus, but he wasn’t dressed in cloth of gold but in that half-cloak Martin had given to the beggar. “He is not even baptised yet,” said Jesus, “but Martin has clothed me with his own cloak.” Martin was reassured and his faith strengthened, but he learned an important lesson that day; sometimes the hardest actions to take aren’t the ones which threaten your life, but the ones which threaten your dignity, which lead to you suffering mockery and misunderstanding for the sake of others.
This was just one example of the growing tension between Martin’s military upbringing and his faith, a tension which in the end must have been unbearable. He knew he faced losing everything if he refused to fight – his family, his friends, his reputation, his identity, as well as his life, but he couldn’t ignore the call of Christ either. I am prepared to bet that standing up against his Roman military mindset was every bit as frightening as the thought of standing on a battlefield, something he’d been trained for from childhood.
The truth that Martin discovered was that courageous service comes in many forms. Those who bear arms to protect our freedoms exercise one, very demanding form of courage, and we recognise, honour and pray for them as they do so, but it isn’t the only one. The frontlines of the struggle for justice and true peace aren’t just in Afghanistan and the other trouble spots of the world, they are right here in our own communities, towns and cities, workplaces and homes, and the battles we really need to fight often can’t be fought with guns and bombs. That was the point St Paul was making in our first reading. He wrote to the Christians in Ephesus about the armour and weapons they needed, but he didn’t mean them literally to go out and buy swords and helmets. He was talking about the things they did and said every day, and the way in which their actions helped or hindered the work of God, the work of peace, the work of justice.
War doesn’t come from nowhere; it grows from small wrongs that are not set right, resentments and prejudices which are allowed to take root because no one thinks it is their job to challenge them. We tend to divide ourselves into soldiers and civilians but the truth is that everyone is a part of a great struggle in which the soul of the world is shaped, whether we like it or not. Each of us is called to battle, whatever form that takes. Wherever we see people treated unjustly, left to shiver in the cold, like that beggar, hungry or homeless, excluded or hated without cause, we are on a frontline, a place where the war will ultimately be won or lost, and each of us will bear some responsibility for the outcome.
St Martin’s life calls us all to take that seriously, to hear our own calling and to answer it, not just to honour those who have paid the highest price of all to guard our freedom, but also to pay the price that is asked of us to make our world a better place.