A Sermon from Sherborne

Here be dragons

A sermon for Low Sunday at Castleton Church, preached at Mattins on Sunday 28 April 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


I was rather amused when the Labour Party tweeted all its members with best wishes for St George’s Day – on the 22nd April. I was even more amused when the media fell over themselves to poke fun: St George’s Day, they said, is April 23rd. Surely everyone knows that. But they were wrong too. No saint can be celebrated between Easter Day and today, Low Sunday. It is the Octave of Easter. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ takes precedence. So St George is properly celebrated tomorrow, Monday, and at the Abbey will be. Similarly St Mark will be celebrated on Tuesday, transferred from April 25th.

So this morning I am going to tell you all about George. It will take only a minute, because all we know for certain about him is that he was born around AD 270, probably in Cappadocia (now in Eastern Turkey). He is said to have grown up in Lydda, in Palestine’s Vale of Sharon. At the age of about 17 he entered the service of the Emperor Diocletian as a soldier. Now Diocletian was for most of his reign tolerant of religious minorities, but around the turn of the century public opinion blamed the refusal of Christians to participate in sacrifices for a series of unfavourable events and omens, and the Emperor ordered all Christian civil servants and soldiers to conform to the sacrificial system or else lose their positions. This, even if it required no more than the offering of a pinch of incense on a flame burning before a statue of the Emperor, was more than many Christians were prepared to do. Those opposed to Christianity pressed for the punishment of these conscientious objectors, and an Oracle from Apollo at Didyma was widely interpreted as calling for the suppression of the Christian faith. So on February 24th 303 Diocletian’s first ‘Edict against the Christians’ was published. A spate of persecution followed, and many Christians lost their lives, George amongst them. The scholarly Eusebius of Caesarea, writing some twenty years later, spoke particularly of a soldier of noble birth who was executed on 23rd April 303. He made no mention of his name, or his place of birth or burial. But the memory of George’s faith and courage was still fresh, and he was rapidly identified with Eusebius’s soldier, which is why St George is usually celebrated on 23rd April, when it doesn’t fall during Easter Week.

And that is all we know, although there is layer upon layer of elaboration and embroidery in subsequent myth and legend, especially from the appearance in the 5th century of the apocryphal Acts of St George. This was even translated into Anglo-Saxon, which perhaps wasn’t surprising as it had George visiting Caerleon and Glastonbury whilst serving in England! Churches here were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest. But George would probably have remained a saint principally revered in the Christian East had it not been for the Crusades. From the late 11th century, wave after wave of western armies attempted to wrest the Holy Land from Islamic control. Their journeys through the Eastern Mediterranean introduced them to the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy, and they were particularly impressed by the depictions of the courageous soldier-saint slaying a dragon, often in the process saving a beautiful princess from a hideous fate. They simply did not understand how the symbolism of iconography works, and that George’s dragon stood for evil, or Satan, or perhaps Diocletian, and the beautiful princess for Christianity, or the Blessed Virgin May, or for the Church itself. Not knowing how to interpret what they saw, they produced their own versions and interpretations – some highly colourful – and as they returned home so a new popular cult was launched in Western Europe based almost wholly on a misunderstanding.

As a cult it prospered. Richard I – the ‘Lionheart’ – placed himself and his army under the protection of the soldier saint. Lyme Regis has a seal dating from 1284 depicting a ship flying a flag bearing the cross of St George – the precursor of the White Ensign. In the 14th century Edward III founded an order of chivalry under St George’s patronage, and for that Order of the Garter the Chapel of St George at Windsor was built by Edward IV and Henry VII. After the battle of Agincourt – when as every schoolboy used to know Henry V cried ‘God for England, Harry and St George’ – St George’s Day was raised to be one of the principal feasts of the year. Soon that gentle saint King Edward the Confessor quietly gave up his place as England’s Patron Saint to the shadowy figure from the Eastern Mediterranean.

But if we can strip away the layers of legend and fairy-tale, we are left with that little pinch of incense as the most significant thing in George’s story. For him and for others like him, it was not a harmless token but a symbol of where they placed their ultimate point of reference for all that mattered in their lives. It divided those who were prepared to acknowledge publicly their loyalty to Jesus Christ and Him alone from those who were not. It identified those who were prepared to abandon their faith and their Christian allegiance when the crunch came; it distinguished those who were ready to identify themselves with the ruling system in all its corruption and compromise from those who stood for a higher loyalty and standard. And we still face tests of the same kind, every day, because all human societies, all governments, always have a tendency towards corruption and compromise, however finely inspired they may once have been. The more firmly established they are, the longer their history, the stronger their traditions, the more they will expect you to conform. And gradually as (to borrow St Paul’s phrase) you are conformed by and to this world, so increasingly your life will deny the very things for which you believe you stand. Take the Church, and our membership of it. What really matters: the institution that is the Church, and its preservation, prosperity and power, or the God for whose sake alone the Church was founded? And you can ask the same question about any company or firm or trade union or school or political party or voluntary organisation. What matters most? The institution, or the work and the purpose and the ideals to which it should be dedicated?

And we have to ask the same question of ourselves. We as individuals are easily tempted to set up little absolutes which become our principal points of reference when a decision has to be made. For example, how do I exercise my leadership of this parish; what determines my decisions and actions? And what determines your reactions to that leadership? Our individual tastes and preferences and prejudices? Or what we discern, after prayer and thought and reflection, as best tending to the glory of God and the building up of his kingdom? And what determines our reaction to how this town, this county, this country is governed? Our own interests and convenience and comfort, or what is truly best for the community and its citizens and its future? And so it goes on. The decisions we all have to make, every day – the decisions we are so used to making that we hardly think about them at all – each is a pinch of incense. And the big question, the ultimate question, is – at which altar is the offering being made? The altar of convenience or expedience or self-gratification? Or the altar of selflessness, of compassion, of love: the altar of the living God?

The Feast of St George is a reminder that all around us are the altars of compromise, and the forces which demand that we make our offerings there are strong. In some countries the altars of compromise are served by those who compel obedience by force and violence. In England the pressures are less crude and more subtle, but no less dangerous for that. Here be dragons, and they can only be overcome by the old but undefeated weapons of faith, integrity and truth. As the song we used to sing at school puts it so well:

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed

’gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;

and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,

from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 28/04/2019
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton