Br Michael was the preacher at Evensong on April 24th and focussed on the lives of two Saints whose Feast days fell over that weekend…
May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be alway acceptable in Thy sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer.
I intend, this evening, to speak not on the lessons read to us, but rather to focus on the lives and examples of two of the better known Saints, whose feast days envelope today. Yesterday, April 23rd, was the Feast of St George and tomorrow April 25th is the Feast of St Mark. We are, today, truly ‘in the midst of the Saints’.
According to legend, George was a Roman soldier who lived between 280 and 303AD. Son of an influential Roman officer, George’s career in the Roman Army began at an early age and George soon rose through the ranks, eventually serving in the Guard of Diocletian – Diocletian, the Roman Emperor being a friend of George’s father, Gerontius.
We know from history that on the 24th February (as we now know it) in the year 303, Diocletian issued a decree that all Christian soldiers in the Roman army should be arrested and that every other soldier should offer up a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time. George’s faith prevented him from doing this, so, rather boldly, he approached the Emperor, who was saddened to lose one of his finest soldiers. Diocletian, George having announced before all his men that he believed in Jesus Christ, tried to convert him, even offering him land, titles and wealth in an attempt to bribe him into worshipping Roman gods. This failed and, recognising the futility of his efforts, and insisting on upholding his edict, Diocletian ordered that George be executed for his refusal. Before his execution, George gave his amassed wealth to the poor and prepared himself for his ordeal. Having endured various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords, during which he was resuscitated three times, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia’s city wall, on 23 April 303. His witness throughout his suffering was enough to convince Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians, as well, so they joined George in martyrdom. His martyrdom completed, his body was returned to Lydda for burial where he was soon hailed and venerated as a martyr.
St George is also known as the famous slayer of dragons, supposedly a legend from the battlefields of the crusades, told in order to impress the sponsoring monarchs of the battles. In the fully developed Western version, which developed as part of the so called ‘Golden Legend’, a dragon or crocodile makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of “Silene” (perhaps modern Cyrene in Libya). Consequently, the citizens have to dislodge the dragon from its nest for a time, to collect water. To do so, each day they offer the dragon, at first, a sheep, and if no sheep can be found, then a maiden as the best substitute for one. The victim is chosen by drawing lots. One day, this happens to be the princess. The monarch begs for his daughter’s life to be spared, but to no avail. She is offered to the dragon, but then, Saint George appears on his travels. He faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign of the Cross, slays the dragon, and rescues the princess. The citizens abandon their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity. As with many of the Crusader’s legends, the parallels with the Greek legends of Perseus and Andromeda are inescapable. In the legend, we are told that the Dragon represents the devil, with George slaying the devil with help from God. The legend also says that the lance, or sword, with which George slew the dragon was named Ascalon; and it was after that lance that Sir Winston Churchill named his personal aeroplane, during the Second World War.
We now move onto St Mark. Professor William Lane states that there is an ‘unbroken tradition’ that identifies St Mark with the persona of John Mark, and John Mark as the cousin of St Barnabas. Others, however, see Mark the Evangelist, John Mark and Mark, cousin of Barnabas, as three separate people. Hippolytus of Rome held the second belief, that the three were distinct people. His book, ‘On the Seventy Apostles’, reads that Mark was one of the Seventy, sent out by Jesus to spread the Gospel in Judea. In the Gospel of John, however, we hear how many of the disciples left Jesus after he announced that his flesh was ‘real food’ and his blood ‘real drink’ – Hippolytus claims that Mark was one of those who fell away, to be restored to the faith by St Peter; becoming his interpreter, writing the Gospel according to St Mark, founding the church in Africa and finally becoming Bishop of Alexandria. It is to St Mark that the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria look, as their ‘founder’, in the same way that the western churches look to St Peter in Rome.
Amongst other theories regarding St Mark, are that it was Mark who was the ‘young man’ that ‘ran naked’ from the Garden of Gethsemane and that is was Mark who carried the water to the house where the Last Supper took place. Although not definite, this would make sense, as Mark’s family were believers and it is likely that Mark would have been involved from an early age.
It is believed that, in the year 828, relics of St Mark were stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants, aided by two Greek monks and were taken to Venice. Having wrapped the relics in a layer of pork and cabbage leaves, in order to ensure the Muslim guards did not check the packages with any great care, they returned to Venice, where they remained until, in 1968, Pope Paul VI presented the relics back to the Orthodox Church, thus beginning a series of ecumenical talks that continue to this date.
Unfortunately, although many of them can be, many of the claims made about the two saints are unable to be claimed with any great level of certainty. One thing, however, is certain: the lives that they were purported to live are lives that we should try and emulate. St George, in a position of authority, power and wealth, was willing to sacrifice all and endure a gruelling death for his faith, whilst St Mark spent his life spreading the Gospel to the world.
This idea of emulation has two benefits: firstly, by following a good, Christian example, we too can become more Christlike, in the hope that, when our time comes, we can join with all the saints and martyrs in Heaven. The other benefit is that, in living a good life, we can be emulated by others, helping them to become more Christlike. I mentioned in my prayers how Her Majesty, this week, turned ninety; and stood here this evening, I can think of few other people whose faith shows so clearly in their work, example and attitude. Her Christmas messages often contain more theology than many a sermon I have heard, and her way of life, of service to her people and her God is something we can all look to. Although it would be a happy day for Britan and for Christianity, I am not presuming to suggest that Her Majesty is a saint, nor that she should necessarily become one, in fact, that is my point – the Queen, just like George and Mark in their earthly lives, is not a saint, she is simply a person who, by virtue of her office, is well regarded and often looked to for advice or perhaps emulation. Perhaps in a slightly different way, Christians are often looked to in that regard as well and we must be sure that when people do look to us, we are doing what we ought, not what we oughtn’t.
As I said at the beginning of my sermon, today we are truly ‘in the midst of the Saints’. This statement, however, isn’t simply true of this evening. Indeed, it is true of every day of our lives. Theological positions vary with regards to the influence of the Saints over our lives, and how we should interact with them, with many advocating the asking of Saints for intercession, and some arguing that such a practice is contrary to their faith. One thing that unites us, however, is the influence of the Saints’ examples on our lives – we must try to live our lives in a way that somehow imitates theirs. We, as humans, are fallen beings and, as such, until we are united with God in Heaven, we will never be able to truly live as God wants us to. The same is true for the Saints – on earth they were sinners, yet they were able to overcome their fallen natures at points during their lives in order to do something amazing – something to spread the Good News of Jesus; and I think that if we can do that, we are certainly on the right track to living as Jesus intended us to.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.