St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain

Alleluia. Let us worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.
O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty God, by whose grace and power thy holy martyr Alban triumphed over suffering and was faithful even unto death: Grant to us, who now remember him with thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to thee in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

TODAY, I WANT TO READ YOU A STORY. It comes from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede. Bede wrote in the eighth century, but the story itself harkens back to third century Britain. It is the story of St. Alban, the first British martyr who was executed for his faith sometime around 250. I’ll pause the story at a few points, to make some connections and comments that I hope will be relevant to us and to our lives.


At that time suffered St. Alban, of whom the priest Fortunatus, in the Praise of Virgins, where he makes mention of the blessed martyrs that came to the Lord from all parts of the world, says—

In Britain’s isle was holy Alban born.

This Alban being yet a pagan, at the time when the cruelties of wicked princes were raging against Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain clergyman, flying from the persecutors. This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart.

Some five hundred years after Bede wrote this account, St. Francis is reported to have said, “Preach always. If necessary use words.” The first Gospel that Alban “heard,” the thing that convicted him and convinced him of the faith, was the holy example of the priest: not his preaching, not his words, but his visible life of prayer. The example of your life is often the fundamental first step of evangelism, and it may be the only one you will be able to offer. But, it is a powerful opening for the Spirit to work. The time may come when words are necessary, but they are often a secondary movement of evangelism. Do not neglect to do your good deeds before men that they may glorify your Father in heaven.

The aforesaid clergyman having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the wicked prince, that this holy confessor of Christ, whose time of martyrdom had not yet come, was concealed at Alban’s house. Whereupon he sent some soldiers to make a strict search after him. When they came to the martyr’s house, St. Alban immediately presented himself to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was led bound before the judge.

We don’t know how long Alban was instructed by the priest nor the depth of his catechism, but he either learned or intuited this great Gospel truth of love: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13).

It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger in behalf of his guest, he commanded him to be dragged up to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious person, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if you abandon the worship of our religion.” But St. Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted at the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey the commands. Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?”—“What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties.”—“I ask your name?” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.”—“I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

When Alban was asked his race, his ethnic identity, he did not answer. Instead, he moved directly to a proclamation of faith. Whatever he was or had been by blood, Alban knew that his Christian identity subsumed race or ethnic identity. The water of baptism is thicker than the blood of tribalism, race, ethnicity, nationality. And isn’t that a lesson we need to learn today — all of us? I am an American, southern white male, Anglican Christian. What is the most fundamental part of that statement, the truest part of my identity? Christian. For Alban, the only thing of note about himself was this: “I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”

Then the judge, inflamed with anger, said, “If you will enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.” Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the subjects, nor answer the wishes or desires of those that offer up their supplications to them. On the contrary, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images, shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.”

The judge, hearing these words, and being much incensed, ordered this holy confessor of God to be scourged by the executioners, believing he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words. He, being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake.

In Acts, when the Apostles were beaten by the Jewish authorities for preaching in the name of Jesus, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for his name. When Paul and Silas were beaten in Philippi, they prayed and sang hymns to God in their cell at midnight. And later, writing to the Christians in Philippi, among whom was his former jailer, Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice.” This stands out in many of the confessors and martyrs: that they endure their suffering with rejoicing, in part because suffering is a testimony to the sincerity, to the genuineness, of their faith. Going forward in our time, I think it will become impossible to be a Christian in the public sphere without a degree of ridicule and loss. How we handle that — with bitterness or else with joy — is important. Joy is the way of the martyrs.

When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death. Being led to execution, he came to a river, which, with a most rapid course, ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be executed. He there saw a multitude of persons of both sexes, and of several ages and conditions, which was doubtlessly assembled by Divine instinct, to attend the blessed confessor and martyr, and had so taken up the bridge on the river, that he could scarce pass over that evening. In short, almost all had gone out, so that the judge remained in the city without attendance. St. Alban, therefore, urged by an ardent and devout wish to arrive quickly at martyrdom, drew near to the stream, and on lifting up his eyes to heaven, the channel was immediately dried up, and he perceived that the water had departed and made way for him to pass. Among the rest, the executioner, who was to have put him to death, observed this, and moved by Divine inspiration, hastened to meet him at the place of execution, and casting down the sword which he had carried ready drawn, fell at his feet, praying that he might rather suffer with the martyr, whom he was ordered to execute, or, if possible, instead of him.

This parting, this drying up, of the stream is an allusion to several events in Scripture: Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, Joshua’s parting of the Jordan, and Elijah’s parting of the Jordan. Alban’s life is simply another chapter in the great book of God’s redemptive story, in continuity with all that has gone before. The same God who was at work in the lives of Moses and Joshua and Elijah was at work in Alban’s life. He is at work in our lives, too. The story goes on, and we have our part to play in it now, in continuity with what has gone before. God is always at work among and through his people, acting for the redemption of the world.

Whilst he thus from a persecutor was become a companion in the faith, and the other executioners hesitated to take up the sword which was lying on the ground, the reverend confessor, accompanied by the multitude, ascended a hill, about 500 paces from the place, adorned, or rather clothed with all kinds of flowers, having its sides neither perpendicular, nor even craggy, but sloping down into a most beautiful plain, worthy from its lovely appearance to be the scene of a martyr’s sufferings. On the top of this hill, St. Alban prayed that God would give him water, and immediately a living spring broke out before his feet, the course being confined, so that all men perceived that the river also had been dried up in consequence of the martyr’s presence. Nor was it likely that the martyr, who had left no water remaining in the river, should want some on the top of the hill, unless he thought it suitable to the occasion.

Notice the allusions to Jesus’ death in Alban’s story. Both have themselves in sacrifice for the sake of others. Both won a convert at their executions. Both were executed on a hill, and both were thirsty at the time of execution. This connects Alban’s suffering to Jesus’ suffering. All uniquely Christian suffering — that is, all suffering for the name of Christ — is a share in the suffering of Christ. I’m not speaking of the ordinary trials and tribulation of human existence, but rather the suffering that comes to us precisely for being Christian. That suffering is a participation in the suffering of Christ; it is the cross we bear. And that means that it has meaning. It means that it is, in a way words can’t express, redemptive, offered up and accepted for the salvation of the world in union with Christ’s own suffering.

The river, having performed the holy service, returned to its natural course, leaving a testimony of its obedience. Here, therefore, the head of our most courageous martyr was struck off, and here he received the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. But he who gave the wicked stroke, was not permitted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground together with the blessed martyr’s head.

At the same time was also beheaded the soldier, who before, through the Divine admonition, refused to give the stroke to the holy confessor. Of whom it is apparent, that though he was not regenerated by baptism, yet he was cleansed by the washing of his own blood, and rendered worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Church has long held that there are three equally valid types of baptism:

1. Water — the normative sacramental means

2. Intent/Desire — St. Dismas, the Good Thief: Remember me.

3. Blood/Martyrdom — Jesus’ pierced side brought forth water (baptism) and blood (baptism of martyrdom)

The executioner-turned-Christian had no opportunity for baptism in water, but submitted to baptism in his own blood, which became for him the cleansing blood of Jesus. The Church is bound to the sacramental means that God has instituted for us. God is not so bound.

Then the judge, astonished at the novelty of so many heavenly miracles, ordered the persecution to cease immediately, beginning to honour the death of the saints, by which he before thought they might have been diverted from the Christian faith. The blessed Alban suffered death on the twenty-second day of June, near the city of Verulam, which is now by the English nation called Verlamacestir, or Varlingacestir, where afterwards, when peaceable Christian times were restored, a church of wonderful workmanship, and suitable to his martyrdom, was erected. In which place, there ceases not to this day the cure of sick persons, and the frequent working of wonders.

The Anglican Church has always disavowed the worshipping and adoration of saints relics (Article XXII) largely because of the Roman Catholic abuses of the practice. Still, the witness of the Church is strong and consistent: the holiness of the saints and martyrs does not die with them, but persists in life-changing and life-giving ways. That is one of the reasons we continue to tell their stories. So know this: the witness you bear, the good you do, will not die with you. It is a seed sown that will bear fruit in due season, and will produce thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold, in this age and in the age to come.

I close with Alban’s own words, words that ring out through the centuries and inspire us today: “If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties. …I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”


About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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