Today, we give thanks to God for one of the great saints and martyrs of the Church, St. Alban. He is one of my favorite saints because for much of my ministry as a parish priest I worked in the English Diocese of St. Albans, which is in the county of Hertfordshire, some 25 miles north of London. The city of St. Albans, in Roman times, was called Verulamium, but its name was changed in honor of the man who, like his Lord, gave his up his life for another.
Towards the end of the 3rd century, more than 200 years before St. Augustine arrived in Canterbury, Alban, a Roman-British soldier, was stationed in Verulamium. One day, a man knocked on his door and asked for shelter, as he was fleeing persecution. The man stayed hidden in his house for many days. And Alban soon realized that this man was in fact a Christian priest. Over the days he came to admire him. The historian Bede tells us that after seeing the priest’s devotion and goodness, Alban “was touched by the grace of God, and sincerely accepted Christ.”
But other soldiers who were searching for him eventually discovered where the priest was hiding and came, banging on the door, to arrest him. And then something quite wonderful and beautiful happened. Alban, the soldier, put on the priest’s clothes, and was arrested in his place. He was dragged through the city gates of Verulamium, over the river Ver, and up to the top of a high hill. There he was tried, and told to deny the Christian faith. He refused. The judge angrily demanded to know his name. Bede tells us that he replied, “My parents named me Alban. And I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.” Furious at his reply, the judge ordered him to be flogged and tortured and eventually he was beheaded with a sword.
On that hill in Verulamium was built a church, and it is the oldest site of continuous worship in Britain. The church became the heart of a Benedictine monastery, and today, on higher ground than any other English cathedral, stands the great Norman abbey and cathedral, built in 1077 to contain the shrine of St. Alban.
This weekend thousands of people have been celebrating the feast of St. Alban, and on Easter Monday, when I was a priest in the diocese, I would walk with 100 young people on pilgrimage to the cathedral where with 10,000 others we would visit the shrine, and share a great outdoor concert.
But, when I was a priest in the diocese, what I used to love most of all was sitting alone and very quiet before the shrine itself. Surrounded by candles and cards with intercessions and prayers for healing written from around the world, one feels very close to Alban and to the God whom he loved, even to death.
There is something extraordinarily powerful about the witness of martyrs. The 3rd century theologian Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Why should that be? What is so inspiring, so converting about the martyrs? Martyrs have been honored in the life of the Church not just because of their bravery, but I think because in their action they profoundly embody the Paschal mystery. Dying in order to Live is at the very heart of our faith. In our Gospel story today from Matthew, Jesus gives us these very hard, but profound words, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25)
I have always been moved by the image of Alban literally putting on the priest’s clothes. It’s such a powerful image of what Jesus did for us, how he put on our clothes to save us, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, clothed himself in our humanity, and for our sake became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:7-8)
And we, in a mysterious way, are called to do the same. “Those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.”
In the Rule of our Society, talking of Life Profession, we read, “The grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism, whereby we die with Christ, and are raised with him.”
Each one of us here, when we were marked by the cross in our baptism, were called to share in that same Paschal mystery. Each of us called day by day to die to sin, and to be raised to new life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn. 12:24)
High above St. Albans Cathedral flies the flag of St. Alban. It was on a banner in my church; it was on the card given to everyone who was baptized; on my desk in my office. It is an inspiring crest, in the image of a cross, and in the center a great sword, and at the top, a crown. It represents those ringing words from the Book of Revelation, “Be ye faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)
On the day when we give thanks to God for the life and witness of St. Alban, think of how that crest of St. Alban might speak to your life.
First, the cross. Reflect on the cross which you bear on your forehead, where you were marked in baptism as Christ’s own forever. Where are you now being asked to die? To sin, to habits and desires which take you away from God?
And the sword. What is killing you right now? What challenges lie before you, which may seem so hard, so daunting? How is God calling you to step out and meet them in faith and in trust?
And then, the crown, the promised crown of life. Where is hope in your life right now? What do you hope for? Ask God to renew your hope. Alban met the sword with extraordinary courage and hope. “I worship and adore the true and living God.”
May we be given the same courage, the same trust, and the same hope in our own lives, that we too may hear those gracious and beautiful words: “Be ye faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
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