In olden days it was no strange thing for soldiers to become saints, saints martyrs.
Saints! For the strong, white Christ drew the brave and stalwart to His side. Martyrs! For the old gods were yet alive, and torture and death awaited those who refused to worship them.
It was in the far east, in these days of long ago, that the lad was born who became St. Christopher.
In his boyhood he was named Offero, the Bearer, for already he was tall and strong, better able than were his companions to carry heavy loads. And because his mind was active even as his body, he was chosen captain of his comrade's games, leader of their expeditions.
How the growing lad loved the clean winds that blew across the desert as he braced himself for the race! How he loved the hills covered with olives, as he crossed them ever a little ahead of his boyish followers!
As Offero grew taller and stronger, strange thoughts flitted to and fro in his mind.
When he was a man what would he do? He thought he would surely leave his home sheltered by the olive trees, and go out into the wide world, to the great cities of which he had heard. Power, Strength, these should be his gods, to these only would he offer homage. He would have been well-pleased to be a king and sit upon a throne ruling over great dominions, but as this could never be he would become a soldier and serve the most powerful monarch on earth.
Years passed and the stripling became a man. Head and shoulders he towered above his fellows, in stature as in strength he was a giant.
Then Offero deemed that the time for which he had longed was come. So he buckled on the bright, new armour which had been his pride for many days and fared forth into the world.
Those who turned to gaze after the tall young soldier smiled as they noticed his untarnished armour. They saw that his strength had not yet been tested on the field of battle.
From land to land Offero journeyed, taking service now with one sovereign, now with another, seeking ever to follow him who was too strong to flinch before a mortal foe. There were deep dints on his armour to show where the enemy's blows had fallen the heaviest and it shone less bright now than when he left his home an untried warrior. Strong as of old was the giant soldier, although he had endured hardships undreamed of in the days of yore.
One day a rumour reached Offero that in a distant country there dwelt a prince more powerful than any other in the world.
Power and Strength were still his gods, so he determined to hasten to the palace of the great king and beg to be enrolled in his army.
Over land and sea he journeyed until he reached the capital of the king. Through the gates of the city he entered, none caring to question or to delay a warrior who carried by his side so mighty a sword. Onward he strode until before him he saw the white walls of the palace shining in the sunlight.
In the palace the guards and courtiers made way for Offero to pass. Had they wished, not one of them had dared to stand between the giant and the king. So unmolested the soldier passed through the halls and entered the great chamber where the king sat upon the throne—a king whom none had ever seen to quail.
Low bowed the soldier before the monarch, while he begged that he might serve the king whose renown had spread far beyond his own dominions.
The king smiled well-pleased as his eye fell upon the well-knit muscles of the giant. He bade him to rise and from henceforth to serve him faithfully.
For many long years Offero was content. To fight beneath the banner of a leader so fearless was his chief happiness. When peace reigned he dwelt at court, satisfied still so that he might be near his lord.
One glad summer day, while peace held sway over the land, a minstrel reached the palace. Joyously the king welcomed the stranger and bade him sing to him songs of battle and of mirth.
Of distant lands, of wondrous deeds, of love, of hate, of war and peace the minstrel sang, while Offero stood near to the throne his eyes upon the face of his king.
As he gazed he saw his master again and yet again make a strange sign with his hand, upon his forehead. And each time that' he made this strange sign, Offero saw a look steal into the eyes of the king, which he had believed he nor any man would ever see there. "It is fear I see," murmured the soldier to himself, "surely it is fear I see in his eyes. And did not his hand tremble as he made that sign?"
Offero watched and waited, while his heart grew faint with misgiving. Could it be that there was a power before which his master was afraid, a strength before which he quailed?
When the songs of the minstrel were ended, and the guests and courtiers had strolled away, Offero drew near to the king and asked the meaning of the strange sign he had made upon his forehead and why his hand had shaken as with fear.
At first the king refused to answer, for well he knew how his soldier scorned fear and worshipped strength alone.
"If thou wilt not tell me, I can serve thee no longer, Sire," said Offero, "for surely it was fear I saw upon thy face." So the king, hoping that he might yet keep his servant with him, told him the truth.
"Always when I hear the name of Satan, the Lord of Evil, I am afraid," confessed the monarch. "I fear that he should have power over me, and I garnish me with this sign that he grieve not or annoy me."
The king was a Christian and the sign was the sign of the Cross. When Offero heard his master's words, he said "Farewell, O king, I go from hence to seek the Lord of Evil, because he is stronger than thou." And in the dawn of the following day he set out to find his new master.
It was not difficult to trace his steps, for in every city and village into which the soldier entered there were signs that but lately he had been there. Even in the desert and over the mountain-paths the footprints of the Evil One were to be seen. Cruel were his deeds and bitter was the bondage in which he held his vassals fast. Ofttimes Offero heard the cry of those whom he oppressed and saw the tears of women and little children whom he had robbed. The giant would have ceased to search for so ill a lord, had not his love of power grown with his growth. It was clear that he could find no lord more powerful in the world than the Lord of Evil.
At length as he journeyed, Offero came to a dark and fearsome wood. He had scarce entered it ere the gloom struck terror to his heart. In vain he tried to throw aside his fear, as he strode deeper and deeper into the shade.
In the densest part of the forest he saw among the trees a company of knights, clad in dark armour. The faces of the knights were dark and terrible. One, who was their leader, a knight "cruel and horrible" to look at, demanded what Offero wished, that he had ventured into the court of the Lord of Evil.
"It is to take service under him, that I have come hither," answered Offero, "for I hear that he is the most powerful lord on the earth."
Then for many days the strong soldier served the Lord of Ill and in his service he did cruel and wicked deeds, so that men learned to tremble when he drew near to their homes. So great was their hatred of his evil ways that they called him "The Unrighteous." Offero paid little heed to his new name, for had he not at last found a master who would cower before none.
It chanced one day as the Lord of Evil left the wood, followed by his knights, that Offero rode close behind his master.
They reached the highway talking gaily of the town which they were on their way to besiege, when suddenly the Lord of Evil grew silent.
Offero looked up in surprise and started to see that his master had pulled his horse up sharply and was himself cowering as though he had been struck, while he covered his face with his hands.
Then without a word, his lord turned and galloped off the highway toward the desert, his knights following in grim amaze. Only when they had ridden many miles out of their way, did they again return to the high road.
Now Offero had seen by the roadside nought that could startle or alarm. Only a wooden Cross, "erect and standing," had been there.
As they rode along the highway once again, Offero asked his master why he had fled to the desert, since it had but delayed their journey. But the Lord of Evil refused to answer, though again and again Offero demanded the reason.
Then said Offero, "If thou wilt not tell me, I shall anon depart from thee and shall serve thee no more." So at length his master spoke.
"I will tell thee," he said, "What drove me to the desert. There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the Cross, and when I see His sign I am sore afraid and flee from it whenever I see It.
Offero listened to these words and marvelled. For it seemed to him a strange thing that anyone should fear a man who had been hanged upon a Cross. But he said to the Lord of Evil, "Then is Christ greater and more mightier than thou, when thou art afraid of His sign, and I see well that I have laboured in vain, when I have not found the greatest Lord of the World. And I will serve thee no longer, go thy way then, for I will go seek Christ."
Thus it was that Offero fared forth on his last long search. No longer as a soldier, but now as a pilgrim he journeyed, eager to reach his goal.
Many he met who were seeking the same Prince, and of them Offero asked the way. But they could help him little, for each one sent him along a different path.
Great and valiant kings he met, who wished him to tarry and serve them with his great strength, but to these he paid little heed. His quest was to find the Man who once was hanged upon the Cross and Him only to serve.
After long wanderings, Offero came to a desolate land, where no flowers bloomed, where no birds sang, nor was there any dwelling place to be seen in the desert, save only a single hut. In the hut lived a hermit. Far away beyond the cell, Offero caught a glimpse of a broad and mighty river. No bridge was thrown across it, nor was there a boat to ferry travellers to the other side.
The pilgrim's strength was growing faint with the long search, and ere he could reach the hermit's hut he fell to the ground.
As he lay thus, helpless and alone, it seemed to the weary pilgrim that his eyes were opened. Far away across the mighty river the clouds lifted themselves like gates and the red lights shone through, and he saw a city, fair and set upon a hill. And a Voice cried, "Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors and Our King of Glory shall come in."
Then Offero as he gazed knew that he beheld the city of Him who was not only the King of Glory but the King of Love.
The vision faded and Offero awoke to find the hermit of the desert looking down upon him. He helped the weary pilgrim to his little cell and there for many days he cared for the stranger.
At first the days passed by unnoted by Offero as he lay in the lonely tent, but as strength stole back into his giant frame, he would creep to the door of the cell and lie there, looking out across the silent desert, wondering if ever again he would see the golden city, the city of the King.
Once, as the sun went down, the hermit sat by his side and told to his guest the wondrous story of the Cross and of Him who had suffered, yea and died thereon.
Never had Offero heard so strange a tale. Here was courage greater than he had dreamed, here was love stronger than death.
As the voice of the hermit ceased, Offero leaped to his feet, and holding high his sword he vowed that he would serve this strong, white Christ for evermore, for He alone was King upon earth as in heaven.
"Thou needest not thy sword to fight the battle of the Lord of Love," said the hermit, his voice grave as the sword flashed on high. "Far other are the weapons He would have thee use. This King, whom thou desirest to serve, requireth the service that thou must oft fast."
"Require of me some other thing and I shall do it," answered Offero, "for that which thou requirest I may not do."
"Thou must then wake and make many prayers," replied the hermit.
"Nay, but with my strength must I serve the Lord Christ," said Offero, for still in his heart he was proud of his strong right arm, of his stalwart limbs.
Then the hermit who had learned wisdom in the quiet of the desert saw that his strange guest must indeed serve the Christ in other guise than did he.
"Knowest thou the river at the edge of the plain," he asked Offero, "where many pilgrims perish ere they reach the other side?"
"I know it well," answered Offero, remembering that it was across the black stream that the city of gold had gleamed upon his sight.
Then said the hermit, "because thou art noble and high of stature and strong, thou shalt dwell by that river and thou shalt bear over all them that shall pass there, which shall be a thing right convenable to our Lord Jesus Christ whom thou desirest to serve, and I hope He shall shew Himself to thee."
"Certes," said Offero, the Bearer, "this service may I well do, and I promise to Him for to do it."
A few days later, the hermit guided his guest to the bank of the river. Swift flowed the stream and black were the waters when they reached the edge.
Offero as he glanced across at the distant hills saw that they were shrouded in mist. Could it be that he had once seen the clouds above these hills lift themselves up like gates and the red lights shine through? Now there was nought in the distance save the mist driven by the winds.
On the banks of the river, the hermit bade Offero build a hut, in which to dwell, that he might be ready to help to the farther side those who came to the brink of the river.
"Pilgrims will come hither from all lands," said the aged man. "Some will have lost the strength which once they had and be feeble and worn, others will be too young to venture to the farther side alone and these thou shalt carry across the flood. As thou dost aid these wayfarers to reach the golden city, thou wilt be serving the King Himself. And it may be that after thou hast toiled thou shalt see once more the land that is not far off."
So Offero built for himself a hut on the bank of the river and dwelt there, that he might be ready to help those who wished to cross the river.
As the hermit had foretold, pilgrims from all lands came to the river's brink. Old men and young, maidens and little children, all called upon the strong soldier to help them to the other side.
And the patience of Offero never failed. With a great pity in his heart the strong man raised the weary pilgrims in his arms and stepped into the icy stream. In one hand he grasped a strong staff upon which he leaned when the swift flowing waters threatened to sweep him off his feet. Sometimes the wind blew fierce and lashed the river into a raging torrent, yet Offero never refused to cross if a pilgrim sought his aid while the storm was at its height.
High as the river rose, so great was his stature that never had the waves and the billows gone over his head. Yet had he been in sore straits, so that his feet had well-nigh slipped.
As he placed the pilgrims gently down on the farther side, he often saw a great light upon their faces, "a light that never was on sea or land," and he knew that their eyes had seen the palace of the king, nay, rather that they had seen the King Himself. Yet when he gazed into the distance he saw nought save the mist that hid the mountains from his sight.
With no glimpse of sunlit hills, no ray of light from the golden city, Offero laboured on. Even at midnight, as he lay upon his rough bed in the hut, if he heard a voice call, he arose and went to the help of him who cried.
Months and years passed away and at length Offero's strength began to fail. When the current ran most swift he feared lest he should not reach the farther side in safety.
Then one night as a fierce storm raged, Offero feeling strangely weary closed the door of his hut and lay down upon his bed. It was midnight and in such a storm surely no one would wish to cross the river. He would sleep sound for none would need his help.
But although he lay down, the giant could not sleep, for the thunder crashed and the rain beat ever more fiercely upon the little hut, while the wind threatened to overthrow it. Offero's ears had grown quick to hear the cry of pilgrims and now, even through the tumult, he thought he heard the voice of a little child calling to him.
He roused himself. On such a night he could not leave a cry unheeded, least of all the cry of a child. But when he opened the door and peered into the darkness he saw no one. So he shut the door of the hut and again lay down. No sooner had he done so than once more he thought, faint above the storm a voice called "Offero, Offero."
He roused himself hastened to the door and going out into the darkness looked on this side and on that, but saw no one.
Again he lay down and tried to sleep. But a third time he the aght he heard a cry and this time it was near at hand.
Offero sprang up and flinging wide the door he stepped out into the night. As he looked down he saw, almost at his feet a little Child, clad in white, whose eyes shone as stars in the darkness. The Child smiled as he gazed up into the giant's face and said in a voice that rang like music through the storm, "Offero wilt thou bear me across the river to-night?"
Without a word the giant stooped and gently raised the little Child and placed Him upon his shoulder, then grasping his stout staff he stepped into the raging stream.
So swift flowed the current that Offero all but lost his foothold, yet he struggled on while the waves rose higher and higher, reaching well-nigh to his lips. And the little child who had seemed so light a load, appeared at each step to grow heavier, until at length Offero felt as though the whole weight of the world was resting upon his shoulders.
Onward he stumbled, scarce able now to support the weight of the Child, or to struggle against the storm. He began to fear lest he should be drowned and so the little One with the starlit eyes should perish.
In his sore plight he forgot the pride he had been used to take in his own strength and cried aloud to his King to save him.
Even as he prayed the mist, seemed to rise from the distant hills and once again there burst upon his sight the city of the King,
With new strength Offero struggled on and at length with one last desperate effort he reached the farther bank.
Gently he set the little Child upon the ground and looking down upon him said, "Child, Thou hast put me in great peril; Thou weighest almost as I had all the world upon me, I might bear no greater burden!"
Yet even as he spoke the marvel that had befallen grew plain to the Bearer. For upon the face of the little Child shone love so wondrous, so kind, that it drew him to his knees, while he cried, "Mine eyes have seen the King." And as he kneeled the Child said, "Marvel thee nothing, for thou hast not only borne all the world upon thee but thou hast borne Him that created and made all the world upon thy shoulders.
"I am Jesus Christ the King, to whom thou servest in this work. Henceforth thou shalt no longer be called Offero, but Christopher shalt thou be named, because thou hast borne the Christ upon thy shoulders. And because that thou know that I say to be the truth, set thy staff in the earth by thy house and thou shalt see to-morrow that it shall bear flowers and fruits."
Then the Child vanished from his sight and Christopher saw Him no more, but he thrust his staff into the ground and lo! in the morning it had blossomed and as the Child had told, it bore "flowers, leaves and dates."
So Christopher went back to his work, a great joy in his heart, for he knew that even as he cared for others, he was serving Christ his Lord.
An old book called The Golden Legend tells how a Pagan king put Christopher to a cruel death, because he would not deny his Master. Of this you will wish to hear, but listen first how a poet who lives in our own day, dreamed that Christopher reached the City that was set upon a hill.
Long years after Christopher had carried the Christ Child across the river, he, "one glad day lay down to die," for he was now weak and old. But as he lay dying he heard a voice crying for help to cross the river. He had never left a cry unheeded and even now he struggled to his feet, determined to carry one more pilgrim to the other side. But he knew how feeble he had grown and he murmured to himself, "Christ must give me strength for this last task."
As he reached the edge of the water he stopped, his heart beating quick with sudden joy, for there awaiting him stood once again the Holy Child.
Christopher stooped to lift the little One, but even as he did so he felt that he was too faint to carry Him across the flood. In sore distress he prayed,
The Holy Child looked up into the face of his faithful servant and smiled as he answered,
Then He raised Christopher from his knees and Himself carried his saint across the river.
That, you will think, is a beautiful ending to the life of St. Christopher. But the story of the martyrdom is grim and terrible.
"When Christopher at length left the river where he had worked for his Master for so many years, he went to a city in Greece, called Lycia. The city was governed by a pagan king named Dagnus.
Christopher did not understand the language of the Greeks, so he did a strange thing. He stood in the market place and prayed aloud that God would help him to know what the people said. And his prayer was answered.
The pagans saw Christopher's lips moving but they could not see Him to whom he prayed, so they thought he must be either mad or foolish, and took no more notice of him.
But Christopher when he found that he could understand what the people said, hastened to those in Lycia who worshipped Christ, that he might comfort them. For the king was torturing and putting many of them to a cruel death.
The judges of the city soon heard what the stranger was doing and going to him they struck him on the face.
"If I were not Christian I should avenge mine injury," said Christopher, as he clenched his hands lest he should disgrace his Master by a swift revenge.
Then he thrust his staff into the ground and prayed that it might blossom as of old. And when it bore flowers and fruits many of the pagans believed on Christ.
At length the king heard that 8,000 of his men had ceased to worship the gods. He was very angry with Christopher, who had shown them the way to Christ, and sent two knights to bring the stranger to him.
When the knights found Christopher he was praying and they were afraid to do the king's will. As they did not return, Dagnus grew impatient, and sent other two knights. But they knelt to pray with the man they had been sent to take prisoner.
"What do you wish?" Christopher asked the knights when he arose from his knees.
"The king hath sent us to take thee bound into his presence," they answered.
Then the old pride of strength leaped up in the heart of Christopher and he said, "If I would, ye should not lead me to him, bound or unbound?"
The knights were amazed at his courage, nor had they any wish to take him captive.
"Go thy way, where thou wilt," they cried, "and we will tell the king that we could not find thee."
But already Christopher was ashamed of his proud words and he bade them tie his hands behind his back and lead him to the king.
When Dagnus saw the stranger bound, he trembled and fell from off his throne, but struggling speedily to his feet he demanded the prisoner's name.
"Offero was I called before I was baptized and now am I known as Christopher, for I have borne the Christ upon my shoulders," answered he.
"Thou hast a foolish name," said the king, "for thou art named after One crucified, who could not keep Himself, nor may He profit thee. Why therefore wilt thou not do sacrifice to our gods?"
"Thy gods are made with hands," replied Christopher. "Eyes have they but they see not, they have ears but they hear not, and they that make them shall be like unto them."
"Gifts and honours shalt thou have if thou wilt worship our gods," said the king, "but if thou wilt still serve the Christ, thou shalt die and that with great pains and torments."
But Christopher had known his Master too long, too well, to deny Him now. So as he refused to sacrifice he was thrown into prison, while the four knights who had brought him bound to the king were beheaded.
Then Dagnus determined to try yet another way to conquer his prisoner. He sent two beautiful women into the dungeon that they might try to persuade Christopher to worship their gods.
But they, when they saw the prisoner kneeling in prayer were afraid and when he arose and asked them wherefore they had come, they answered, "Holy Saint of God have pity of us that we may believe in that God that thou preachest."
So Christopher told the women the story of Christ's life and death, and as they listened they determined that they too would become servants of the Man who had once hanged upon the Cross.
When the king heard that the women had forsaken the gods, he swore that they should be put to death unless they did sacrifice in the temple.
But they bade the king prepare the temple and command the people to assemble.
When this was done the women went into the house of the gods as though they meant to sacrifice. But no sooner had they reached the altar, than they took off their girdles and flinging them around the necks of the gods, they pulled the idols to the ground, so that they broke into pieces.
Turning then to the people, they cried, "Go call physicians and leeches for to heal your gods."
In his rage, Dagnus showed no mercy, but ordered both the women to be put to death.
Then the king sent for Christopher and commanded that he should be beaten with rods of iron and that on his head should be placed a cross of red hot iron.
These among other pains Christopher suffered rather than deny his Lord.
At length he was bound to a stake, while forty archers shot at him with their arrows.
But lo! not an arrow reached him, for when they came near they were caught and hung in the air as though held by an unseen hand.
"Loosen the prisoner and bring him hither," cried the king. As the archers obeyed and began to untie the bonds that held Christopher fast, one of the arrows that hung in the air suddenly sped towards the king and struck one of his eyes.
Then Christopher cried, "Tyrant, I shall die to-morrow in the morning, do thou anoint thy eye with clay, mixed with my blood and thine eye shall be healed?"
The king was too angry to give heed to Christopher's words and ordered that he should be beheaded without delay. Thus after many torments Christopher suffered martyrdom and was henceforth known as St. Christopher.
After his death the courtiers begged the king, to anoint his eye as the prisoner had bidden him to do.
So the king laid clay upon his eye and cried aloud, "In the name of God and of St. Christopher." The next moment he knew that he was healed.
Then Dagnus determined to worship God and proclaimed that if any one throughout his realm should "blame God or St. Christopher" he should be slain with the sword.
St. Christopher's remains or "relicks" as the old story says, were brought to France, and were to be seen for many years enshrined at the Abbey of St. Denis, near Paris.
In several Gothic Cathedrals enormous statues of St. Christopher were placed. He was usually represented as fording a river.
St. Gregory the Great tells of a monastery in Sicily that was named after the Saint.
Perhaps the most beautiful reference to St. Christopher is in these lines from an old hymn, "Christopher, limners (painters) grant thee to bear upon thy shoulders the Christ, because thou didst ever bear Him fixed firm, even in thy heart."