Though overshadowed liturgically by today's great feast of St. James, this legendary saint has lots to teach us.
When I was growing up, my grandparents kept a rather large medal of St. Christopher in the glove compartment of their car. Like countless Christians over the centuries, they had a notion that Christopher was the “saint of travelers” and that it was good to have him around, but that seemed to be as far as their devotion to St. Christopher extended.
I imagine that, among those honored as part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (cf. Hebrews 12:1), Christopher is probably one of the least understood saints, especially in these decades after the Second Vatican Council.
His story was once well-known.
Once upon a time, a thief and robber—and a giant—known as Christopher (or Reprobus as he was originally named) was a fierce man who dedicated his life to seeking out the most powerful prince to serve. At first, he believed this was the devil—a being feared by men—but, he eventually came to believe that Christ was the greatest of all princes. After being instructed in the Christian Faith by a hermit, he was baptized and given the name Christophorus.
The hermit who had instructed Christopher gave him the task of carrying travelers across a local river—a job easily done because of his great size and strength. One day, he began to help a child to cross the river, carrying the boy on his shoulders, when he began to feel a weight so great that he was bowed down by it. Once they reached the other side, the child said to Christopher: “Don’t be surprised, Christopher! You were not only carrying the whole world, you had him who created the world upon your shoulders! I am Christ your King, to whom you render service by doing the work you do here.”
According to the legend, Christopher went on to bring many to Christ. He was eventually martyred during the reign of the Emperor Decius, sometime between 249 and 251.
Today, when many people hear his name, their initial response is: “I thought he wasn’t a saint anymore.” This is an unfortunate mistake and certainly not true. However, in 1969, as part of an effort to simplify and update the Church’s liturgical calendar, St. Christopher’s commemoration on July 25 was removed from the Missal. There were two reasons for this. First, despite his popularity, we know nothing more about Christopher than his name and that he was a martyr. Second, July 25 is the feast of the Apostle St. James the Greater and the commemoration of St. Christopher was added to the Mass for St. James almost as a sort of after-thought. Because of the priority rightly given to St. James’ feast and the fact that we know so little of St. Christopher, it was decided that his celebration would be left up to individual dioceses (or even parishes).
For those who might still doubt Christopher’s saintly status, the Roman Martyrology—the Church’s official listing of saints and beati—still includes the name of St. Christopher on his traditional date of July 25. But, unlike previous editions (which recounted some of the fantastic details surrounding his life and martyrdom), the most recent edition of the Martyrology (2005) simply says: In Lycia, Saint Christopher, Martyr.
The beloved story of St. Christopher carrying the Christ-Child across the river is found in the Golden Legend (a collection of lives of the saints written by Blessed James of Voragine around the year 1260). Although scholars and theologians recognize that the story recounted by Blessed James is almost completely fictitious, we do find there a very beautiful description of St. Christopher that is an important lesson for us: “Before Christopher was baptized, he was called Reprobus, meaning ‘Outcast,’ but afterwards, he was called Christophorus, the ‘Christ-bearer.’ He bore Christ in four ways, namely, on his shoulders when he carried him across the river, in his body by mortification, in his mind by devotion, and in his mouth by confessing Christ and preaching him.”
Although the details of his life have been lost, in a sense we know all that we need to about Christopher: he carried Christ into the world. And, in this sense, every Christian is a “Christopher” who carries the Christ in their hearts, making him present through our acts of kindness and love. The presence of Christ within us is the great gift of the Sacrament of Baptism and it is nurtured through the gift of the Eucharist. This truth makes St. Christopher a wonderful model and patron for every Christian person: “Faith knows that God has drawn close to us, that Christ has been given to us as a great gift which inwardly transforms us, dwells within us, and thus bestows on us the light that illumines the origin and the end of life. We come to see the difference, then, which faith makes for us. Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith” (Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei).
Just like St. Christopher, whom we remember as carrying and protecting the Christ-Child, each one of us has the privilege of sharing the presence of Christ that dwells within us with a world that is hungry for the peace, justice, and joy that only Christ can bring. We can also share in St. Christopher’s final witness—his martyr’s death—when we make the sacrifices of our time and gifts by praying for others, supporting good works, and lifting up those who are weak.
A prayer in honor of Saint Christopher +
Almighty God, grant that we who celebrate the memory of your blessed martyr Christopher, may be made stronger in our love of you, through his intercession. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(adapted from Collect for the Mass of St. Christopher from the Misale Romanum )
I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. —Galatians 2:19b-20