“Christopher : The Holy Giant” By Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola passed on March 30, 2020.
He continues to teach, entertain and tell stories and legends to young readers in his 270 picture books.
In this one, from 1994, he has righted something that confused me.
St. Christopher, for years on end, was regarded at the Patron Saint of Travelers.
Travelers put medals of Christopher in cars and wore his image on a medal when they traveled.
Suddenly, in 1960, the Catholic Church removed Christopher from its Calendar of Saints.
Seems there was a question of whether he existed or not.
Which gives pause to wonder about the entire process of canonization of saints.
But, I digress.
In Tomie’s “Author’s Note, directly, and to his credit, he addresses the story of Christopher and the fact that his story was no longer available to children – at least not in Sunday School:
The image of the giant carrying the Christ Child across the stormy river is one of the most stirring images in classical church art. My favorite is a fresco on a column in the Basilica of Sat. Petronius in Bologna, Italy. So, whether Christopher did or did not exit does not concern me. I just want this legend and its accompanying imagery to be available again to all children.
Thank goodness, there were and are picture author/artists such as Tomie dePaola that step outside the previously accepted nods that some institutions, such as the church, gave to what they once considered worthy of endorsing.
Christopher’s story, as related by Tomie, is an amazing and mesmerizing one.
His cover art is one of Reprobus, as Christopher is initially named.
His eyes, a crystalline blue, peer out calmly and directly into yours from the cover and his hand firmly grips a gnarled wooden staff as tall as he is.
Reprobus wishes to serve the “The greatest king in all the world.”
His inquiries take him to the local ruler who is fearful of someone greater than he; the devil.
Reprobus seeks the devil and finds him, but even the devil quails at the sight of a cross.
And when the devil is questioned he answers:
“The cross belongs to the Christ, who is even more powerful than I am, said the devil.
Then I shall seek this Christ and serve him, said Reprobus.”
Further on he goes until he meets a hermit who tells him:
“You cannot find him,” the hermit said. “You must pray, and Christ will find you. “
“But I don’t know how to pray,” Reprobus said.
“Stay with me and I will teach you,” said the hermit. “Then you will be told how best to serve Christ.”
On the other side of the desert is a mighty river and the hermit tells him:
“Because you are so strong and tall, carry all who ask to the other side. Then I am sure Christ will reveal himself to you.”
Many people came to the hut of Reprobus and he carried each across the river on his strong shoulders.
One night, there is a fierce storm, and Reprobus thinks he hears a child calling, “Come, Reprobus, and carry me over.”
Reprobus thinks it is the wind.
Again, he hears the voice.
The third time he sees a child on the banks of the river.
“Reprobus, carry me across the river,” the child said.
And Reprobus complies with the child’s request.
He wades through the stormy waters and the river rises and churns.
And with each step, the child seems to grow heavier on his shoulders.
Reprobus continues and the water grows higher and the child grows heavier, but he pushes on through the huge waves and wind.
They finally reach the other side and Reprobus says:
“You put me in great danger,” he said. “You were so heavy that I felt I was carrying the whole world on my shoulders.”
“Reprobus,” the child said, “not only were you carrying the world, you were carrying the son of Him who created it. I am Jesus, the king whom you have been serving by this river. From now on, you shall be known as Christopher-Bearer-of-Christ.
And to show that you serve me, set your staff in the ground next to your hut. Tomorrow you shall see it flower and bear fruit.
And it happened as the Christ Child said. Christopher’s image with the Christ Child on his shoulder, would be put in many churches. People would go there before a journey and say:
“Behold Saint Christopher. Go thy way in safety.”
It’s a tradition that I grew up with and still put his medals in all the cars we own and with each new car my two daughters had.
Thank you, Tomie, for reminding me why I do it and why this legend must be passed on to young readers.
The art and narrative alone are a gift from Tomie to us.
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