*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 2nd of June 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
“I can see a new horizon underneath the blazin' sky
I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion, all I need's this pair of wheels
Take me where my future's lyin', St. Elmo's fire (Ooh, oooh, oooh)”
Can you name the song from the lyrics?
Can you remember the 1985 movie in which this song was featured?
Do you know about the electrical and atmospheric phenomena called St. Elmo’s fire? It’s the electrical discharge from sharp objects during thunderstorms
Do you know the name of the saint after which the song, the movie, and the phenomena are named?
St Elmo? Wrong. It’s St Erasmus of Formia. (Elmo is the Italian diminutive for Erasmus) And he’s an actual saint, and he’s considered one of the 14 Holy Helpers in the Catholic Church, and what we know him is impossible to verify and likely the result of a confusion of at least 2 Elmo’s. Let’s tell the story as it comes down to us….
Erasmus of Formia was a Bishop. This is most likely not Erasmus the Archbishop of Antioch, but that doesn’t keep the stories from mixing.
The Acts of St. Elmo, the Passion of St. Elmo as well as Jacob Voragine’s “Golden Legend” are the most relied upon texts that have shaped the church’s understanding of this saint. And in a way, this is what matters to the historian who cannot access non-existent data to confirm how “historically accurate” this story is. But centuries of Christians have believed something like the story we have of him today and thus he has been launched into the stratosphere of important saints.
So, what do we think we know (or how has the story been told)?
Erasmus was an Italian Bishop from Formia (a town south of Rome) and that he died in 303. Today, June 2nd has largely been celebrated as the anniversary of his death. 303 of course would be during the tail end of the Diocletian persecution.
We’ve talked about Diocletian as he was 1) a successful emperor on many accounts and 2) a fierce enemy of Christianity as he believed Christians were either subversive or weak and not the kind of people that can coexist with the empire.
The St. Elmo story is pretty boilerplate. Known for his preaching, he rises through the ecclesiastical ranks, becomes known for his preaching and miracles, is arrested by the Roman Empire, and put to death by means of torture and disembowelment. It is said that once while preaching as lightning strike barely missed him and he kept preaching. His association with lightning would lead to his association with sailors (known for not liking lightning) and soon the electrical discharge that sharp objects make during lightning storms were called “St. Elmo’s Fires”. Lightning had been associated with the roman Gods and twins Castor and Pollux.
In St. Elmo’s case, the legend is more important than the historically dubious records. His cult grew amongst sailors and then soon mothers in labor and then all with stomach pain. The 14 Holy Helpers, of which Elmo was one, include historical and legendary figures to whom Catholics could pray for physical and spiritual relief.
Today we remember St. Elmo and consider the historical significance of a man whose legend dwarfs the sparse facts. There is no word as to whether he can “take you to where your future’s flyin” as that was pure speculation by the song.
Today we remember the mysterious, popular sometimes-Saint on the day assigned to him, which according to legend, he died in 303.
The last word for today comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is from the first chapter
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of June 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christopher “You broke the boy in me but you won't break the man” Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who can climb the highest mountain, cross the wildest see, I can feel St. Elmo’s fire burnin’ in me, burnin’ in me.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.