Advent, the season of waiting. This year, for some reason, my thoughts return to the Cotton Vitellius IV manuscript—though not to Beowulf. That would be my usual direction, but now I’m thinking of St. Christopher, for his legend passes down to us through that charred collection. The Anglo Saxon folks loved the story of this dog-headed giant, who carried the Christ Child across a raging torrent and earned his status as the Patron Saint of Travelers. And, no, he was not de-canonized. He’s still a saint. His facial features suggest a mythical nature, true. However, his martyrdom in the third century has earned him sainthood, and his dog-headed status might well be because of a misinterpretation of his native tribe’s name, Cananeus (Canaanite) versus canineus (canine). His depictions, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, show him with a dog-like head, and I find that I’m okay with that, especially because of his “faerie tale” quality.
By most accounts, he started out as a fellow named Reprobus. Near eight feet tall, they say, full grown. Born of Canaanite stock, I prefer to imagine that he was a descendant of the Nephilim, those giant fellows who had plagued mankind before the Flood. And, if it turned out that not all of them got washed away in the flood, it made a sort of sense that one of their kind who came by religion eventually sought to make his honest way in the world by helping travelers over dangerous water. But I cannot imagine that his life was easy.
From his legend, he was a warrior, which seems natural for one born to extreme size and strength. He also seemed to be a bit of a seeker, which is why I turn to him in Advent as an image of intentionality. His legend relates that he sought to the mightiest king he could find. That aspect of his intention makes me think that even with his size and strength, Reprobus was not a man to lead others. If he lived with facial deformities, this Caneneus/canineus fellow might find expressing himself difficult. That isn’t an easy thing for a fellow to carry. It would, I think, have been a lonely life. Clearly, he was a man apart from a community of peers.
Whatever the case, he came to follow the mightiest king he could find, and when, one day, his good king crossed himself at the someone’s mention of the name of the devil, Reprobus thought that he should just go and find this Devil and follow him, since the mighty king feared the Devil so. Maybe Reprobus just knew that he wasn’t smart enough to lead others, made more to be a hammer than a calculator, so to speak.
But in the man who called himself the Devil, he found a man meaner—but smaller—than himself, a terrible outlaw. Like the backstory of many saints, Reprobus soon began to do the terrible bidding of an outlaw, which, likely further alienated him from his fellow man. But one day, this self-styled Devil approached a cross planted on the side of the road Reprobus and the outlaw band traveled. Fearing the cross because of his own evil, the outlaw leader left the road they were traveling, went far out of his way. When Reprobus asked why, he learned that the outlaw leader feared the one for whom the cross stood in homage.
So, Reprobus took it upon himself to follow the one for whom the cross stood, though he’d never heard of him. Eventually, he found an old hermit to show him the ways of faith in order to serve the one for whom the cross stood. And poor Reprobus couldn’t make heads or tails out of prayers and spiritual practices. He couldn’t remember prayers or chants, and he couldn’t have carried a tune if it had handles on. Things that the hermit did to follow the cross fellow had nothing to do with crushing enemies. Reprobus was, after all, a giant and maybe horrible to behold. But given what the old hermit told him, the poor giant still wanted to serve the power of the one for whom the cross stood.
So, that hermit, who was a pretty good pastor, really, suggested that Reprobus serve that cross lord by helping travelers get across the raging river in its swells. And the giant was so big and strong that he took to this sort of service, and his legend does not relater how long he aided travelers by that service. I imagine that he lived like his hermit pastor, perhaps in a lodge, big enough to keep the rain off his head.
So, his seeking led him to that lonely place. Those he served weren’t in his company long enough to become friendly, one thinks, even if they were repeat customers. But his intentionality, the ability to believe in his purpose lefty him cut off, as he followed his desire to serve the one for whom the cross stood. That is a condition pretty common to pastors as well as artists, those who proclaim a message and carry it out to the world. Theirs is often a strange and lonely life, for their mission more or less separates them from others. And I think of him in this season of waiting, Advent.
It had to be hard on Reprobus. I imagine that there were many days on which he wondered if he shouldn’t just knock some of these rich merchants on the head, take their swag, and live a life of some comfort, even if it was a lonely comfort. He was like the bluesman who said that he rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to himself that share a satin cushion with others.
The end of his waiting, the change, or “turn” as Tolkien might call it, talking of faery tales, came along when a tiny little boy came up and asked him if he could get a lift over the river. The story relates that Reprobus had no idea that this was any other than the Christ Child. The giant just hopped down into the flood without a word. Maybe, by then, going through the motions of his service. As most artists and pastors, he knew that doing something was better than nothing. So, he beckoned the kid to climb up onto his shoulder.
And that was when things began to change. It sparks my imagination. I can just picture it: that small boy weighed more than anything or anyone Reprobus had ever hefted. Maybe Reprobus thought that he must have been letting himself go. I don’t imagine Reprobus ever exercised his huge muscles, had never needed to, which was sort of like his faith, which was just a matter of something that happened once a week or so. But Reprobus’s oak-trunk legs, shook and quivered as the boy took his perch. The giant’s wide back bent and twisted under the unaccountable load. Those feet that had crushed his enemies in battle sank in the mud of the river bottom, and though he had a walking stick as big as a ship’s mast to help him, Reprobus was soon up to his neck and feeling as though the river was more enemy than he could deal with, what with this heavy child on his shoulder. I got to imagine that it was all Reprobus could do to hear the little fellow on his shoulder whisper “Come on. You can do it. Just a step at a time.” All that he could think to do was what he set out to do: get someone across the water. Simple, yet near impossible in this case.
Now, the old tales say that the boy revealed that he was, indeed, the Christ Child, God incarnate, and that Reprobus had borne not only the world on his shoulders but the One who made it, and came in the flesh to be with us, which, if you think about it is some heft. Then, “anon,” as they used to say in the old days, He left Reprobus, who got a new name that day, Christopher, “Christ-bearer.” The days of waiting passed. The “turn” in his faery tale had come and his life of searching led him to the place of change unlike anything he ever imagined possible. And though he went on to be martyred, he left the river side and was on to other things, working for the people who followed his mighty king. And that is a faery tale that I can get my mind around, especially as a writer, one who works his mission, seeking, always seeking the story of the change, the “turn” of events that shows the growth of a character, the resolution of the plot and the happy ending.
Tolkien reminds us, in “On Fairy Stories,” that this is why we read them. As Tolkien reminds us, we need such faerie tales like St. Christopher’s, because of the “turn” that comes:
It its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden or miraculous grace:never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dycatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:the possibility if these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal and final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
And in Advent, we await the celebration of the eucatastrophe that comes with the arrival of the Christ Child. All of us, really, seek the grace of the “turn” that comes in the midst of mission, and we are vulnerable. We await the coming of the small, weak child—vulnerable, fragile—crossing our rivers, day after day, trying and failing.
I realize that many see the coming of the Christmas Season as a faerie story celebration, but the truest stories I know are those that speak of the arrival of grace in our lives, and St. Christopher’s tale reminds me that the waiting is worth it. Happy Advent, one and all!