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Wow! The Dutch really know how to enjoy their religion. They even named a church after a mixed drink. The thought occurred to me, in a lighter moment, as I crossed the Grote Markt of Groningen and set eyes on the commanding tower of the Martinikerk on the northeast corner of the city’s central square. Of course, the locals probably knew nothing of that particular combination of gin and vermouth back when the original church was built in the 13th century. They had the 4th century French saint, Martin of Tours, in mind.

On an interior wall of the Martinikerk hangs a painting by contemporary Dutch artist Egbert Modderman (1989-). It depicts a young man leaning over a half-naked man much his elder, gently draping him with a cloak. According to legend, Saint Martin, then a member of the Roman army stationed in Gaul, came across a beggar in deep winter, outside the city gates of Amiens, clad only in rags. Moved by compassion, Martin took his sword and divided his cloak in two, giving half to his neighbor in need. That night Martin had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him wearing the very cloak he had given to the beggar. In the account of the dream given by a contemporary, Sulpicius Severus, Jesus turned to the angels by his side and explained the provenance of the cloak: Martin, but a Christian catechumen at the time, had given it to him. The dream cemented Martin’s commitment to his Lord. He was soon baptized and left Roman military service as a conscientious objector, informing Caesar face-to-face that he was now a soldier of Christ and would not take the life of another human being.

Saint Martin’s dream recalls the parable of judgment Jesus tells in Matthew 25, where the Son of Man returns to separate the peoples as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Those judged worthy to inherit the kingdom were those who ministered to the King in his need—when he was hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, imprisoned. When the righteous, stunned and surprised, asked when they had seen His Royal Majesty in such dire straits, he answered: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Equally stunned and surprised were those who learned that when they turned away from their neighbor in need they were turning away from the Lord—however thankful they may have been, I might add, for their many blessings in this life; however lustily they may have sung their songs of praise in church; however mightily they may have fought for Christian values; however correct they may have been on every point of theological doctrine. (As Pope John Paul II reminded us, we are not only to experience mercy, but practice it.)

Stained glass in Freiburg

Saint Martin’s act of compassion became emblematic of what became known in the Catholic moral tradition as the Seven Acts of Corporeal Mercy. Codified in the Middle Ages, the first six of the seven acts were based on the actions of the righteous found in Matthew 25: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned. These are, one and all, merciful responses to the trouble we vulnerable humans can get into by virtue of our embodiment. A seventh, the care of the dead, was added in the first half of the 13th century. It found a scriptural anchor point in the apocryphal book of Tobit (1:16-17).

Jesus in a breadline

The acts of corporeal mercy were often represented in the art of the church, in the 13th century stained glass in the Freiburg Minster, for example, or the early 16th century polyptych of the Master of Alkmaar (Cornelis Buys the Elder) that now hangs in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. The latter is of special interest. In keeping with the parable of Matthew 25, Jesus appears in each panel of the polyptych not as the one serving, but among those being served. Consider the first panel on the left. There Jesus—center frame, the only one visually addressing the viewer—is standing in the bread line. Perhaps this panel served as an inspiration for the 1953 “Christ of the Breadlines” woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg, published in Dorothy Day’s The Catholic Worker. Together these artistic representations stand as enduring visual teachers of the ways we serve our Lord by serving those with whom our Lord identifies—our neighbors in need. Seeing Christ in each other is surely an exercise in faith, wrote Dorothy Day, but in doing so we grow in the joy of our vocation and the knowledge of love.

The Seven Acts of Corporeal Mercy found representation not only in art but also in philosophy. Questions might arise: why seven acts of mercy and not five or nine; why these particular acts and not others? In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas laid out the logic of the list, assuring us that the acts were not “unsuitably enumerated” (ST, II.II, Question 32, Article 2). The acts indeed cover our basic bodily needs: the common internal needs of life (food and water); the common external needs of life (clothing and shelter); the special needs in life (care in sickness, visitation in prison); and, finally, a common need after life (a decent burial).

The other half of Saint Martin’s cloak, the half the saint kept for himself, became a relic initially preserved by the Frankish kings at the Marmoutier Abby near the city of Tours, where Saint Martin served as Bishop. Later, the cappa Sancti Martini, as it was called, was housed at a royal palace in Luzarches, just north of Paris. In the 8th century Charlemagne gave the palace, and the cloak, to the care of the Monks of Saint Denis.

Christ of the Breadlines

The priestly custodian of the cloak was called a cappellanus. In French, the title became chapelain, the origin of the English word “chaplain.” Similarly, the small churches built to accommodate the cloak of Saint Martin in its storied itinerary were called capella, meaning “little cloak” or “little cape,” the etymological origin of the English word “chapel.” Eventually the word “chapel” was applied to small, subordinate churches generally, and the connection with the cloak of Saint Martin, and the exemplary act of mercy it represented, faded from view. A similar fate attended our word “chaplain.” Over time, it was applied to all ministers who conduct services outside the parish church—in hospitals, prisons, the military, and educational institutions.

Much usage and circulation over the centuries has worn down and obscured the relief of these linguistic coins, their image and superscription. The date of mint and object of commemoration is now difficult to discern. We speak with them. But rarely do they speak to us. Should we have ears to hear, they could tell a rich story of Christian experience and reflection.

Once a year, at winter’s solstice, we celebrate a season of gift giving and unwrapping. But throughout the year we are surrounded by the gifts of the Christian lexicon, passed down from one generation to the next, if only we will recognize them as such—and take time to unwrap them.

Header: From the Groningen City Atlas of 1575 by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg/Public Domain

Egbert Modderman, Sint Martinus (2015), Photo: Romke Hoekstra/Creative Commons

From the Freiburg Minster, Photo: James Steakley/Creative Commons

Detail, The Seven Works of Corporeal Mercy, The Master of Alkmaar, Public Domain

Fritz Eichenberg, Christ of the Breadlines. Photo: Jim Forest/Creative Commons

Lee Hardy

Lee Hardy is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Calvin University, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.