Today is the feast day of Saint Christopher. For anyone who has ever had a Saint Christopher medallion to protect them on their travels and come to think of it, a fair few who haven’t, I should probably deal with this image first. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christopher is often pictured with the head of a dog. Probably it is due to a mistranslation. Someone who meant to say that he was a person who came from the land of Caanan (in Latin, Cananeus) accidentally said that he was a dog (canineus). Alternatively it might have been because, in less enlightened times, people thought that there really were tribes of people who had the heads of dogs, who barked instead of speaking and who dined on human flesh. The medieval mind was extremely credulous and people believed all sorts of unexpected things about people from lands far away.
You’ll also notice that Saint Christopher’s tunic is rather short and that his stockings only come up to his knees. This is because Christopher was also a giant. According to wikipedia, he was five cubits tall, that’s seven and a half feet (2.3 metres). If we look at the Golden Legend though, which was written some time in the thirteenth century and much more fun, we find that he was twelve cubits, that’s eighteen feet (just over five and a half metres)
Christopher was in the employment of the king of Caanan but decided that he wanted to serve a more powerful master. He travelled until he met the most powerful king in the world and was received into his court. The king was a Christian and Christopher noticed that he crossed himself whenever the Devil was mentioned. Surely, if the king was afraid, the Devil must be more powerful. So Christopher thought he should be serving the Devil instead and went in search of his new master. He met a group of Knights who demanded to know what he was about. He explained that he was looking for the Devil so he could serve him. So one of the knights said ‘That would be me then…’ and Christopher became his servant. But when the saint found out that his new master was afraid of the cross, he set about finding out about how he could serve God.
He met a hermit who suggested a life of fasting and prayer, but Christopher didn’t think he’d be very good at that. Fair enough really, we expect giants get pretty hungry. Instead he settled on helping people across a dangerous and fast-flowing river. Then one day a child appeared asking to be carried. The tiny boy proved to be so heavy that Christopher was almost drowned. When he set him on the opposite bank the saint said that he didn’t think the whole world would be as heavy as his passenger. The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”
Saint Christopher was also a martyr and the Golden Legend has a couple of interesting things to tell us about that too. When Christopher refused to worship other gods, a pagan king had him tied to a red hot iron stool which melted like wax beneath him and Christopher was unhurt. Then he had him tied to a stake and made his knights shoot arrows at the saint. But all the arrows stopped short and hung in mid-air. When the king approached to find out what was going on, one of the arrows turned about and shot him in the eye. Christopher explained that the king must cut off his head, mix the saint’s blood with a little earth, apply it to his wounded eye and he would be healed. Christopher was then beheaded and his instructions successfully followed. The Pagan king immediately became a Christian.