The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). By their example and by their prayers they support and encourage us, and give us strength to be faithful to Christ in our own day.
Today we stand in the presence of one of these witnesses: St Alban, a Roman soldier who became the first Christian martyr in Britain. Alban was stationed at Berulamium, a city about twenty miles northeast of London, and lived in the early part of the 4th century, or possibly the 3rd century (the actual date of his martyrdom is uncertain). Although he was a pagan, he befriended and welcomed into his home a Christian priest who was fleeing persecution. Observing the prayerful life of the priest, he was moved to question him about his faith. The priest’s replies led him to believe and put his trust in Christ.
In the meantime, reports that the priest was hiding with Alban reached the authorities. Soldiers were sent to arrest him. When they came to his home, Alban met them at the door, wearing his guest’s cloak, the customary garb of a Christian priest, and presented himself as the man they were looking for. He was arrested and brought to the military governor, who saw through his disguise.
The Venerable Bede, a monk and early Church historian, gives this account of Alban’s trial: “When Alban was brought in, the judge happened to be standing before an altar, offering sacrifice to devils… ’What is your family and race?’ demanded the judge. ‘How does my family concern you?’ replied Alban; ‘If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.’ ‘I demand to know your name,’ insisted the judge. ‘Tell me at once.’ “My parents named me Alban,’ he answered, ‘and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.’
Alban was tortured and martyred in place of the priest, on the hilltop where the Cathedral of St Alban’s now stands. He was, as the collect for today reminds us, “faithful even unto death” and for this he has been remembered down through the ages.
“Faithful unto death.” For Alban, “faithful unto death” meant being tortured and beheaded. For us, it will mean something quite different. Alban’s Christian life was brief, but our calling to be “faithful unto death” may well stretch over decades of time. Most of us are called to “a spirituality for the long haul.” Our faithfulness will be measured in small things, daily decisions and choices, the constant turning of our hearts to God. We will be asked to turn away from the voices that discourage us or tell us that the offering of our lives to God is foolishness, and to embrace each day the particular vocation that God has given us.
What does it mean, what will it mean, for you to be “faithful even unto death?”
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12: 1-2).
May we find grace today, and every day, to follow Alban and to follow Christ on the way that leads to never-ending life. May we, too, be “faithful even unto death.”
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