Days come and go – some ringing down through history with special resonance, like those transcendent, arresting bells found in Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” – forever inspiring. Kiev is again in the news, but for the wrong reasons. Mussorgsky’s piece is about the triumph of goodness, victory against the odds and daring when others dare not. That is also the spirt of St. Crispin’s Day, celebrated on October 25th.
Why should anyone care about St. Crispin’s Day, in the rush and tumble of our modern melee? Why should anyone stop to hear Mussorgsky’s chords, or think about the power of St. Crispin’s faith? Here is why: What matters most is thought of least, and character is forged in crisis – plus remembering how others dealt with crises.
By all accounts, St. Crispin – and twin Crispinian – were humble souls, Christians who eked out a living as cobblers, preaching by day, making shoes by night in the 3rd Century. They lived in Soisson, France. Their influence was widely felt – for which they were first persecuted, then killed in 286 AD. That was hardly the end of their influence.
As famously retold by Shakespeare, Britain’s Henry V took courage from St. Crispin’s Day. His lines are epic. As the British king made for home, having fought north from Voyennes, France – 50 miles from St. Crispin’s resting place – Henry’s men met a force five times their own, at Agincourt.
French expectation was that Henry would surrender; he did not. Instead, he declared: “The fewer men, the greater share the honor,” and rallied exhausted men saying: “This is called the Feast of Crispian.”
In the speech, Henry notes those who survive this day shall each year rouse and say: “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day … Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered … we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
So it was that Henry and that first “band of brothers” who vanquished a force five times their own, in 1415. History’s echo continued. In WWI’s Battle of Soisson, fought right where St. Crispin fell, Americans, British and French turned back the German Army in 1918.
Then on St. Crispin’s 1942, WWII Allies recorded a critical double-win, victory in the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa and repulsing the Japanese half a world away on Guadalcanal. On St. Crispin’s 1944 came the largest naval battle in history – Leyte Gulf. Americans and Australians faced the Japanese Navy. After a decisive win, the Japanese never sailed again with comparable force.
In the long flow of human events, we come to St. Crispin’s Day 2019 – and wonder: What meaning has this day for us, in our time, under a flag of peace – albeit facing attacks on people of faith, flagging hope in our society’s commitment to goodness, gentleness and justice?
Here is the meaning, citing another British statesman, Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” That is the nub of it, right there – for individuals and nations.
What St. Crispin taught was that faith requires resolve, victory comes at a price – and yet from Soisson to Agincourt, El Alamein and Guadalcanal to Leyte Gulf, faith and resolve are decisive in repulsing evil. Goodness knows, we have reason to remember now. When others throw up their hands and despair, choosing not to makes all the difference. There rings a bell worth hearing.