I do not come from a military family. My grandfather served with distinction in the Second World War, so much so that he was invited back for Korea. My stepfather also served, but in a position of peace. (His stories were filled with laughter, not with blood.) And so, today, I will “borrow” a veteran, for today is also the feast of Martin of Tours, one of the most beloved saints of the early church and middle ages.
Martin was a soldier in the Roman army, back around 350, when that meant you were the best in the world. When he finished his term, he settled in Poitiers and began to the process of becoming a Christian.
One day, as he was riding his horse, a poor man came to him and asked him for alms. Seeing that the man was naked, Martin immediately drew his sword and cut his cloak — his red soldiers’ cloak, the mark of his old identity — he cut it in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, as he was sleeping, Christ appeared to him in a dream, covered in the half-cloak, and told Martin that he had been the poor man.
The story goes on from there. Martin was ordained a priest, then a bishop, choosing to live as a simple hermit even as he took on the weight of office. He brought many to faith and condemned his brother bishops for their use of violence to enforce orthodoxy. He became a protector of the poor, of all who could not protect themselves. By the middle ages, more stained glass windows featured him than almost any other saint, and the oldest church in England is a Church of St. Martin.
Many people see battle that way: if you dare enter the heat of combat, you will know what you are made of. Your weakness, your fear, your indecision will be burned away, and you will emerge as a real man.
For many, I even believe that it is true.
But St. Martin reminds us that there are many kinds of refiners’ fire. The hermit’s silence, the quest to learn, the work of meeting the endless demands of this world (of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the frightened), even the constant care of parenthood. Each of these requires its own courage, prunes out our deadwood, shapes us into a real human being.
Today, we honor those who have risked their lives in battle. They took the very fabric of their being and offered it to be torn, so that we might receive the gift of freedom. But that gift is fragile; it requires us to maintain it. Not only on the battlefield, but in our schools and courts and in the corridors of power.
For this is the true battle, the one Christ calls each of us to engage: not only to have freedom, but to use it well. For it was given to us at a cost. Not every soldier comes home.