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St. Christopher’s search for the most powerful person

According to his legend, St. Christopher’s name was actually Reprobus. He resolved to devote his enormous strength to the service of the most powerful person he could find

The statue of St. Christopher at Charles Bridge near the Vltava River in Prague, Czech Republic.
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Unexpectedly, I’m going at least slightly autobiographical for a second column in a row.

When I was very young, a brief fad arose of wearing small medallions in honor of St. Christopher. Whether it extended beyond my Southern California elementary school, I cannot say. (At that age, the campus was my world.) I remember asking my mother for such a medal; she responded that, since we weren’t Catholic, it didn’t seem quite appropriate. The fashion passed quickly, and I didn’t think much about it for decades.

But St. Christopher’s story is a very interesting one. He is venerated in several Christian denominations as having lived either during the third-century reign of the Roman emperor Decius or under the early-fourth-century rule of Maximinus II Daia. But this uncertainty already suggests a problem: Was Christopher really a historical person?

Legends about him first appear in Greece during the sixth century, and his veneration became widespread in western Christendom only in the late Middle Ages (roughly A.D. 1250 to A.D. 500). After the Virgin Mary herself, he is the most commonly depicted saint in the wall paintings of English churches. Somewhere around 1550, he began to be commemorated in the Roman list of martyrs. (According to tradition, he was beheaded.)

Early legends report that his actual given name was “Reprobus” (“rejected” or “base”), and that he was a Canaanite. Supposedly, he was both gigantically tall and strong and phenomenally ugly. Sometimes, in fact, he’s even depicted with the head of a dog — probably owing to confusion between the Latin terms “Cananeus” (“Canaanite”) and “canineus” (“canine”).

According to his legend, Reprobus resolved to devote his enormous strength to the service of the most powerful person he could find. First, he served the Canaanite king. However, when he found that the king feared the devil, he determined to serve the devil, instead. So he found a robber chieftain who claimed actually to be the devil, and he served him. But then he saw the robber chief fearfully avoiding a roadside crucifix, and he concluded that Jesus must be more powerful still.

A hermit of whom he inquired recommended a life of fasting and prayer, but Reprobus recognized that these were not his gifts. Was there not some other way in which he could serve Christ? At this point, the hermit called his visitor’s attention to a dangerous river nearby, which had claimed the lives of many seeking to cross it. Given his size and strength, the hermit suggested, Reprobus could serve the Lord by transporting people safely across the raging torrent. Reprobus eagerly assumed the task.

The statue of St. Christopher on the side altar in the Church of El Salvador (Iglesia del Salvador) in Spain by Jose Maestre, shown in October 2014.
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Many days thereafter, a young child stood on the riverbank, requesting help to cross the treacherous stream. Reprobus took the little boy on his shoulders and began the crossing. Suddenly, though, the river became swollen and the boy seemed unbelievably heavy. Reprobus struggled, fearing for his own life as well as the boy’s. Upon reaching the opposite bank, the exhausted giant said, “I doubt that the whole world would have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied, “You bore on your shoulders not only the whole world but him who created it. I am Christ your king, whom you serve with this work.” And then the child vanished.

This is the story from which “St. Christopher” derives his more familiar name, which means “Christ-bearer” in Greek, along with his status as, among other things, the patron saint of travelers.

But it’s strikingly reminiscent of an ancient Greek myth about the young hero Jason, returning to his native city of Iolcus. En route, Jason encounters a withered old woman, who seeks his help to ford a dangerous river. It is the goddess Hera, in disguise; she is testing his kindness and courage. Without hesitation, he takes her on his shoulders and begins to ford the stream. But she is unexpectedly heavy and he staggers under her weight. Once on the other side, she reveals her divine identity as queen of the gods and, thereafter, becomes his patroness during his heroic quest.

In February 1969, Pope Paul VI issued an “apostolic letter” titled “Mysterii Paschalis” that restructured the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Among many other changes, the letter declared that devotion to St. Christopher is not part of the Roman tradition. While local Catholic churches are free to venerate him, his feast day is not observed by the church as a whole.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.