I was asked a few times after Sunday worship and then early this morning about the failure of St. Alban from a worldly perspective. If there are lots of churches named after him and we celebrate his day in many different liturgical churches, how can his witness have been a failure by worldly standards? It dawned on me that a number of people may have missed previous celebrations of the martyrdom of St. Alban, and I do not think that I have written much about it in the Bulletin in previous years. So, of what failures am I speaking?
Alban is generally thought to have been a Roman officer of some sort in the Roman town of Verulanium, a town NW of present day London. One day, an itinerant monk passed through the town and witnessed the Gospel of Christ to Alban. As the events were prior to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, monk was sought by the local authorities in one of the many persecutions of Christians. Alban, so moved by the Gospel of Christ, traded clothes with the monk and sent him on his way.
Alban was captured and brought before the Roman governor who demanded that Alban turn over the monk and renounce God. Alban, despite being tortured and despite only recently coming to the faith, refused. He was sentenced to be executed.
As word spread that a Roman officer was trying to save a monk, more and more people turned out to see what was happening. When Alban left the governor’s quarters to head for the hill where he was to be killed, far too many people were there to watch. In fact, Alban and his guard could not cross the bridge of the river Ver because of the multitude. So, Alban headed to the banks of the Ver, lifted his hands to the heavens, and asked God to stop the waters as He had the river Jordan when He led His people from slavery to the Promised Land. In what was the second miracle in most peoples’ minds (the first was that a Roman officer would try and save a Christian monk), the waters stopped, the riverbed dried up, and Alban and his escort crossed the river Ver on dry ground.
As Alban climbed the hill, he noticed he was a bit grubby from the recent beatings. So, once again he lifted his hands to heaven and prayed that God would allow him to wash himself before he met His Father in Heaven. Miraculous, a spring well up, and Alban was allowed to wash himself prior to his execution.
These miracles were apparently enough for the executioner who declined the job of executing Alban on the pain of death. A second executioner was selected, and Alban was martyred on the hill where the cathedral in his name now stands. In what was perceived to be another miracle, the second executioner also died as he was martyring Alban.
Why would the world consider the story of Alban to be a failure? It certainly is no fairy tale. There is no happy ending, save that God’s grace abounded. The itinerant monk, upon hearing of Alban’s torture and impending death, struggled to return to save his benefactor. Despite turning himself in, he was unable to rescue Alban from his fate. And, in a sadder ending, was himself killed a few days later. Likewise, the first executioner was also killed. There is no story of wonderful conversions to the faith. All the major participants were killed, despite the obvious miracles.
Of course, the fact that we attend a church in Iowa named after Alban testifies to the fact that the throng of witnesses never forgot the story. A Roman officer laid down his life for a nameless monk. Because of the willing sacrifice of Alban, that mirrored the work and person of Jesus Christ, Christianity had the hearts of many commoners in Britain. Later missionaries would pick up on the seeds planted by the story, and the rest, as they say, is history, or rather His story!
We might wish that armies of Angels had risen up to save Alban or that the governor had been so moved by the miracles that he would have converted; yet such is not the case. Death and failure seemingly abounded; yet the redeeming God was at work in the midst! And so, this week, we celebrate that seeming failure of 1700 years ago and give thanks to God for the witness of our patron, Alban, who died and found eternal life and glory in the living, redeeming God.