St. Christopher (Christophoros)
Reprobus… it’s probably not a name you’re familiar with, but if we were to say that this man became known as the ‘Bearer of Christ’, the patron saint of travellers, and a symbol of good luck around the world, you might start to get an idea of just who he was. As with many of the most well known of Christ’s followers, Reprobus’ name was changed to reflect what Jesus thought of him; he became known as Christopher (later Saint Christopher) which literally means ‘bearer of Christ’.
Reprobus’ beginning is shrouded in mystery, and there are few sources that can accurately described exactly who he was or where he came from. One legend that has potential to be the truth is that he was born the illegitimate son of a king in Cana. His mother, a servant within the royal household, had, it is said, prayed to God for a child, and was ‘rewarded’ with Reprobus, although we don’t know whether her relationship with his father was a consensual one or not.
The child the woman had so longed for was said to be deformed, a giant who was hideous to look at.
Growing up near to the king’s court, Reprobus would have seen what power and money – neither of which he had – could do, and it is this which would have spurred him on in the next stage of his life.
"Altar frontal of Saint Christopher" by Master of Soriguerola
Myth and truth combine (as is often the way) to tell us the history of the man who came to be known as Saint Christopher. It is said that he became a thief known for his fierceness, great strength, and enormous size. He must have been a formidable, frightening figure, and it’s not surprising that most of those who met him were afraid of him.
Reprobus’ mission was to find the most powerful master to serve – this would enable him to gain riches and notoriety, as well as power if he did a good job and could move up within this nobleman’s household. The king – his supposed father – would not see him, so he had to look elsewhere.
His search began with human men, but there seemed to be none around him that matched his lofty ideals. Eventually, Reprobus decided that he would have to look further afield, but still no one seemed quite right (or they had heard of his dangerous reputation and decided not to hire him). He was left with just one master to serve; the devil. After all, the devil was feared by everyone, and was known to everyone. Even his own father had been afraid of him. If he were to be the devil’s right hand man, he would have more power than he ever thought possible.
So Reprobus went off in search of the devil. His journey was a long one, but one that changed him forever. During his travels he met a hermit who told him that the devil was not who he needed to serve; he should be serving Christ instead. It was at this point that Reprobus, finally understanding what it really meant to serve, and that power and money were not what he needed in his life, became baptised and took the name Christophorus (or Christopher).
Saint Bridget, Saint Christopher, and Saint Kilian
The Famous Story
Despite now having a much more positive life ahead of him, Christopher found himself at a loss. What could he do now? How could he find Christ and serve him? The hermit helped him once again by giving him a job. The nearby river was deep and fierce, yet travellers needed to cross it regularly. Could Christopher, thanks to his size and strength, help them across?
Of course he could, and that’s exactly what he did, taking countless travellers and tradesmen across the river.
This story wouldn’t have amounted to much in reality but for one important event that became famous the world over and is still known today.
"São Cristóvão" by Jheronimus Bosch, dated (1530-1550)
One day, a child needed to be taken across the river. An easy job for someone of Christopher’s stature. Or so he thought. Lifting the child easily, he sat the boy on his shoulders and began to make his way merrily across the river. But as he went on, the child grew heavier, and heavier. Christopher’s back was bowed by the weight, and by the time he reached the other side of the river, he could barely stand.
Before Christopher could ask any questions, the boy spoke up. He told Christopher that he had not ‘just’ been carrying a little boy, but the whole world had been on his shoulders, as well as the being who had created that world. The boy explained that he was the Christ Christopher had so hoped to find.
Christopher was overwhelmed, as anyone would be. But he was able to thank the boy, and to ask what he should do next. The answer was a simple one: bring people to me. And that’s exactly what Christopher did. Every time he carried someone across the river, he told the story of Christ, converting many travellers into Christianity as his life went on.
Christopher continued his work for many years, but not everyone was as appreciative of the message he was trying to convey as others. Someone who was particularly incensed by this giant one-time thief telling others to repent and spreading the word of Christianity was Emperor Decius of Rome. Decius had spent most of his reign persecuting Christians, and it offended him that this man was so blatant in his faith and, not only that, but that he was trying to persuade others to join him.
Decius was affronted, and not a little scared at the way this one impressive man had made a name for himself. In around AD250, Decius ordered that Christopher be executed, and he was sentenced without trial and beheaded without mercy.
What Decius had failed to realise, of course, was that this would turn Christopher, the original ‘gentle giant’ into a martyr and, one day, into saint.
Patron Saint of Travellers
Today, Saint Christopher is best known as the patron saint of travellers, and drivers in particular. He is often depicted on medallions and necklaces, for example, as a large man carrying a small boy on his shoulders, wading across a river and holding a staff to support them both.
It makes sense that Christopher obtained this particular description and title. After all, he helped countless travellers during his lifetime, saving them from injury or even drowning when they needed to cross the river. If anyone is going to be prayed for to give safe passage, Saint Christopher seems to be a good choice.
Yet although this is clearly the main reason why Saint Christopher is so beloved of travellers, it’s not the only one. If you think back to the beginning of his story, when he went off in search of a powerful master to serve, you’ll see that he took a special journey of his own. He had to battle with his own self-doubts, had to be prepared to change his plan and his own ideas, had to accept himself (including the less savoury parts of his personality), and allow himself to find peace. How many travellers go off in search of exactly this? They want to find themselves and become better, more enlightened people through their travels.
They couldn’t ask for a better role model than the legendary Saint Christopher.