Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 24

Here is the next installment of the Life of St. Martin. Enjoy!


It is necessary to note, however, that there was, at almost the same time, a young man in Spain, who gained authority for himself with many signs. He was so puffed that he claimed he was Elijah. (2) When many people rashly believed this, he went on to say that he was Christ. In this claim, he deceived people to the point that a certain bishop, Rufus, venerated him as God because of which we see that he was later deposed from his bishopric. (3) Very many from our brothers reported that, at the same time, a certain person arose in the East, who boasted that he was John (the Baptist). From these events, we are able to conclude that, since false prophets of this type were arising, the advent of the Anti-Christ, who is already practicing through these people the mystery of iniquity, was at hand.

(4) But it seems that it is necessary not to ignore by what trickery the devil tempted Martin in these days. On that day, after prayers were made previously, the devil, being surrounded in purple light so that he might deceive people more easily by the brightness of the shining light, clothed even in royal clothing, wreathed with a diadem made out of gems and gold, his shoes gilded with gold, with a serene face and a happy expression so that he would be reckoned as anyone else except the devil, himself stood next to Martin, who was praying in his cell (5) Since Martin was stupefied by the first appearance of him, both held much silence for a long time. Then, the devil first said "Martin, recognize who you perceive: I am Christ. I will come down to the earth, but I first wanted to show myself to you." (6) When Martin was silent and did not respond to this, the devil dared to repeat the boldness of his profession: "Martin, why do you hesitate to believe, when you see it? I am Christ". (7) Martin, since the Spirit uncovered what was happening so that he perceived that this was the devil and not the Lord, said "Jesus did not say he will come clothed in purple and shining with a diadem. I will not believe that Jesus came unless in that same clothing and form in which he suffered, unless bearing forth the marks of the cross."(8) In answer to this, the devil at once disappeared alike smoke and filled the cell with such a stench that it left undoubted evidence that this was the devil. This happened as I reported above. I learned about it from Martin's own mouth. No one should reckon it fabulous.


This passage represents the climax of both the section dealing with Martin's dealings with the demons and the devil himself and of the whole Life of St. Martin. We have already seen an escalation in the seriousness of the human and diabolical enemies of Martin, but here we pass into eschatological language which places Martin into the midst of what is framed as the beginning of the Last Days. We can see that the first paragraph of this section sets the eschatological expectation which is central to the passage. Through his references to the false prophets in this paragraph and in the previous section (see section 23) which featured the would-be prophet, Anatolius, Sulpicius sets up his conclusion that he (and, by implication, Martin) was already living during the coming of the Anti-Christ. All this sets the stage for Martin's direct encounter with the devil.

Furthermore, this encounter is also, as many of the incidents in this work, meant to allude to Jesus' own life; specifically, Jesus' temptation by the devil (Matthew 4, 1-11; Mark 1, 12-13; Luke 4, 1-13). The content of the temptation is, of course, different. St. Martin isn't Christ. Yet, the pattern is similar. The devil tries to use the expectations set up in the Bible as a cloak to lure his intended victim to worship him and, thus, turn him from a true man of God to a false prophet such as the ones already noted by Sulpicius in the early part of this passage. He is foiled because the 'victim', through the Holy Spirit, sees through the fallacy of the devil's exegesis and his trickery. Thus, St. Martin sees through the 'coming again in glory' of the devil by noting that the wounds of Christ are not in prominent display as they should be in the real 'coming again in glory' of Christ. This results in the devil disappearing, quite literally, in a puff of smoke, the victim of St. Martin's superior spiritual discernment.

What I find particularly fascinating in this passage, however, is how St. Martin saw through the deception of the devil. Really, the vision of Christ's return provided here by the devil was a shrewd re-enactment. In St. Martin's time (and our own, in certain circles), the Second Coming was depicted as a purely martial event in which a mighty king will descend to smite the enemies of Christians all over the world. This. of course, picks up the imagery in Revelation 19, hence, is Biblical, as far as it goes. It, also, appeals to the expectations of those who joined the Church because it was the winning side in the politics of the Late Roman Empire or those who feel left out by the secularization of Western countries in the last century or so. Yet, as St. Martin recognizes, this is, by itself, an inadequate basis to judge that the Second Coming has occurred because it is too easy to be dazzled by glory in all its manifestations and miss the truly unique element of Jesus' incarnation- his self-sacrifice for us.

This is why St. Martin's declaration that he would not believe that Christ came unless he saw him in the same appearance as he left and bearing the wounds of the cross is so interesting. The latter proof may strike us as odd because St. Thomas is slightly rebuked by Jesus for insisting on seeing the same marks before believing Jesus' resurrection (John 20, 24-29). As an aside, I wonder if we over-do the emphasis on Thomas' doubt here, but this passage also establishes that Christ's wounds will remain as a mark of what He has done for us. This also picks up the image of the slain Lamb from earlier in Revelation (Revelation, 5,6-14) in the sense that the marks of the Lamb's slaughter remain, even while it is opening the Seven Seals which begin the final war against evil.

What all this suggests is that Christ's Second Coming will not only be a return in glory, but that the marks of the glory would be what were, before the resurrection, considered the marks of a shameful death. In that sense, what Christians should look for as marks of glory is not what the world and, here, the devil, think it should be-crowns and royal trappings- but, rather, the wounds inflicted on Jesus to humiliate him, but which provided him the means by which he defeated sin and death. That, by implication, is the true glory and what we Christians should be looking for in any Second Coming. The failure of the devil to understand this meant that, when he wanted to trick St. Martin, he missed entirely what the point of Jesus' first coming was. Given how big a mistake that was, is there any wonder that he simply didn't understand what the Second Coming will look like?

So, the devil's mistake here isn't just one of too much reliance on external glory on the analogy of the financier in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who choose (unwisely) the gold-encrusted goblet as the true Grail. It was a fundamental failure to discern the cosmic Judo move which the Incarnation represents when the power of sin and death was broken by Jesus' willingness to sacrifice himself for us. Here, St. Martin reaches to the core of the meaning of the resurrection by recognizing from where Jesus' true glory comes.


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