St. Christopher: Carrying the Weight of the World

Feast Day: July 25

I had a friend with a St. Christopher medal in his car that his grandparents had given him to ensure safe travels. They are far from the only Catholics to make a gift of the patron saint of travelers. The truth is that there is only so much that we can do to protect our loved ones when they’re close to us, though we try. When they travel on their own, we worry and just want to do something to make sure they stay safe. In premodern times, when travel took far longer and presented far more lethal danger, people must have felt this urge twice as strongly.

No wonder St. Christopher has been one of the most popular saints in the Church! Due to lack of evidence for the historical person, he has been quietly downplayed by many church leaders and his feast removed from the General Calendar of universal celebrations, but his popularity continues. Why? St. Christopher is more than affordable travel insurance, though that is part of it. More importantly, his intercessions and his story challenge us to take an important step in our faith: to trust God.

The patron of travelers: Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ by Domenico Ghirlandaio. 15th-century Florence. Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access.

The History of St. Christopher

The only thing we know for sure about Christopher is that a fifth-century church was dedicated to him and his martyrdom. Presumably he was one of those many Roman Christians killed for their faith in the third or fourth centuries. That’s it.

Christopher’s name literally means “Christ-bearer.” It was an unusual name. Maybe that’s what prompted the storytelling centuries later. Whoever started the legend created a story that touched others. It spread like wildfire.

The Legend of St. Christopher

Christopher was a giant of a man. Perhaps he was a descendant of the race that spawned Goliath in the Holy Land or perhaps he came from a foreign land of monstrous men, perhaps even cannibals with the heads of dogs. He was a freak of nature, stronger than others with a fierceness to match. Proudly considering himself the strongest warrior in the world, he determined that he would only serve in the army of the greatest king. So he took service under the ruler of a mighty empire—until he saw a moment of weakness in his employer. One of the courtiers cursed, invoking the Devil, and Christopher saw the ruler recoil.

“Aha,” Christopher thought, “the king is afraid of the Devil. Well, then, I shall abandon this weakling and serve the Devil.”

Christopher entered the Devil’s army and marched under his banner, glorying in their power. Then, as the army marched down a dusty road, they encountered a shrine with a cross prominently thrust into the ground right on the roadside. To Christopher’s shock, the Devil left the road and led the army in a wide arc through the desert around it.

“Well,” Christopher thought, “it seems that the Devil isn’t the mightiest ruler of them all. A man of my strength won’t serve him anymore. I’ll serve this person who scares even the Devil, this Jesus of the cross.”

But Christopher encountered a problem. He couldn’t find Jesus though he searched for a grand palace worthy of such a king. Finally, some Christians directed him to a hermit who was said to know Jesus well. The hermit smiled at Christopher and baptized him. However, he counseled the giant that he could not control Jesus. Sometimes you had to wait for Jesus to come to you.

Christopher rejected the hermit’s initial suggestion that the giant join the holy man in a life of prayer and fasting while waiting. Instead he pointed to a nearby river that ran swift and deep. There was no bridge, only a ford where the river ran slightly slower and travelers could try to cross. “What if,” Christopher suggested, “I wait at that crossing and use my strength to help travelers across so they don’t drown? Would that please this Jesus?”

The giant warrior spent months and then years at the river, peacefully using his strength to help others in Jesus’ name. One day a small child came to the river.

“Do you think you can carry me across?”

The giant laughed. “Of course, little one. I could carry you in one hand.”

Christopher picked up the boy and put him on his shoulder, then strode into the river. To his surprise, each step took more and more effort. Even just standing upright in the stream soon required a herculean effort. Gasping and struggling, he took another step forward. His shoulders sagged and his back groaned in pain, but he held up the child and kept going. Step by step he staggered on. Finally, he reached the other side and fell to his knees on dry land, letting the boy slip from his shoulders.

“Well done,” the boy said. “Well done, with charity. I am Jesus, the one you’ve been seeking. For your sake and for others, I carry off the weight of the world’s sin on my shoulders and today I have let you help me carry a hundredth-part of it.”

The boy disappeared from sight. Christopher left the river and traveled to towns and villages to tell his story and to peacefully proclaim the good news of the one who carries off our sins. Eventually, the number of converts attracted the attention of the authorities. They beheaded Christopher in a futile attempt to stop the spread of the faith.

The author in front of a 16th-century fresco of St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child across the river (into which some saltwater fish have wandered). Notice the uprooted tree being used as a walking stick and the hermit in the background by the Middle Eastern church. St. Teilo’s Church in St. Fagan’s Village, Wales.

Lessons from Christopher

People have desperately wanted this story to have truly happened. Bishops condemned the dog-headed version of Christopher. Variants of the story make it more realistic by, for example, having Christopher serving a fierce bandit who operated under the pseudonym “the Devil.” A monastery in Vercelli, Italy bought a giant tooth that they were assured was a relic of St. Christopher, and many pilgrims came to marvel at this proof of his existence and enormous size. Three centuries later the friars in charge of it had second thoughts and paid a naturalist to examine it. He identified it as a hippopotamus tooth.

The story of Christopher has no historical value. He, like St. George, was a martyr whose deeds remain known to God alone. His story lasts because it has spiritual value. It challenges us.

Christopher was a large, scary man with perhaps an inhumane face. What kind of people do I dismiss as monstrous instead of seeing as potential saints?

Christopher sought to associate himself with the strongest and most powerful people. Do I, like Christopher, mistake worldly power for true power? Do we see the true strength present in the unimportant, humble people who quietly serve?

Christopher waited years for Jesus. Do I demand that Jesus act on my schedule or do I wait for him with patience? When he unexpectedly appears, am I ready to welcome him or do I ask him to come back some other time when it’s more convenient for me?

Christopher rejected the hermit’s life but found a way to see his strength to help rather than harm others. How am I called, with the specific gifts I’ve been given, to serve God and others?

Most importantly, Christopher learned to trust in God instead of in his own strength. In my pride, it can be hard to admit I have limits. We all do though. Our limits change from the restrictions of childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood to the infirmities of age, but they are there. When we travel out into the world—or, even more frightening, watch those we love go out into the dangerous unknown—we know there is only so much we can do to control events. A prayer to St. Christopher won’t mean that everything and everyone is always alright (though it helps). That habit of asking for help though is a first step towards trusting Jesus’ strength to get us through whatever happens. God knows that none of us is strong enough to carry the weight of the whole world on our shoulders alone.

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