*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 15th of June 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A very happy St. Vitus day to all and especially to epileptics, actors, and mimes. And especially to those epileptics, actors, and mimes in Prague, or in a storm, or those having recently been bitten by either a snake or a dog. Also, if you tend to oversleep he’s your guy, too.
For those of us on the Protestant side of things patron saints can look like:
- Religious mascots
- Historically dubious religious lore
- Cultural signifiers for superstitious people.
- Curious middlemen/women on what was supposed to be an open line to God
BUT, despite your own theological tribe you are here listening to the almanac perhaps because you recognize the utility in hearing the stories that the church has told about herself. And on this show, we look at the history of saints and sinners and how a Christian just like us could end up the patron saint of Prague and comedians.
So, what do we know: there is an ancient church on the Esquiline Hill in Rome dedicated to Vitus. He is attested to in the Gelasian Sacramentary and in an early South Italian Book of the Gospels. He shows up in the Martyrology of Bede and in another English martyrology. By the 9th century, he would be a veritable saintly superstar in Germany and would be named one of the “14 Holy Helpers”. He tends to show up with his tutor and nurse, Modestus, and Crescentia but we will leave them out of the story for now.
How is the story usually told?
Vitus was the only son of a pagan Sicilian senator in the late 200s, early 300s.
When he converted to Christianity at the age of 12 his father was incensed. He was tortured and imprisoned but Vitus escaped with the help of an Angel.
His healing abilities caught the attention of the emperor Diocletian who summoned the boy to heal his son who had gone insane. Vitus healed the Emperors’ son but then refused to worship the Emperors’ God.
He was thrown into a cauldron of molten lava but was unscathed.
He was put in a lion's den and the lions became tame and licked the young boy's face.
Whilst being tortured pagan temples were said to have been destroyed by lightning.
But when his remains were moved to Saxony in the 9th century the popular saint and his day (the 15th of June) were celebrated with prayers and ecstatic private worship. Soon 15th of June became a day to not only pray for those with illnesses such as epilepsy (tied to Diocletian’s son's malady) but to dance before his statue for a year of good health.
Thus, the St. Vitus dance was born, a combination of the madness of Diocletian’s son, neurological diseases, and ecstatic private worship. From this, he becomes associated with dancers, and then actors, and then all who would perform for others.
And you might know “St. Vitus Dance” as a kind of disease- and yes, it is a dated and possibly distasteful reference to a disease of the central nervous system which causes involuntary movement. Today we call it Sydenham's Chorea
Vitus remains an important relic to understanding the cult of saints, the development of hagiography, and how Christians utilized (even dubious) stories for their own edification.
Today we remember one of the more persistent and curious of the saints in the church- St. Vitus.
The last word for today comes from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has just healed a man who had been driven mad by sickness and evil spirits:
Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of June 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who reminds you that “If St. Vitus' Day be rainy weather, it shall rain for thirty days together.” He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
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.