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Sunday 19th April - Howell's Sermon

Low Sunday 19 Apr 20 20 St George Low Sunday then, low after the high feast of Easter last week. It was sometimes referred to in the Roman Church as Quasimodo Sunday: nothing to do with creeping around the belfry, nor even about Notre Dame de Paris, but rather, just as we often call the Sunday next before Advent 'Stir up Sunday' after the opening words of the Collect (you remember, Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people), similarly Quasimodo Sunday was so called because of the Introit at Mass on this day, which quotes from 1 Peter [2.2]: As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby. In Latin the opening ‘as newborn babes’ is Quasi modo geniti infantes. So, Quasimodo Sunday. Our prayers today, as daily for the past few weeks, have largely been driven by the current Coronavirus pandemic - and more than a few of us have had a least a touch of the disease. But let's for a moment think of something different, a bit jollier perhaps. Next week, as I'm sure everyone knows, we celebrate not only the birthday of William Shakespeare, born in 1564, and the anniversary of his death in 1616. But also on the same day, of course, St George's Day. Yet, although quite startling to someone brought up with school half-holidays on St David's Day, apparently fewer than one in 5 people in England know that St George is celebrated on 23 April, and allegedly more than a quarter of people living in this country don't know who England's Patron Saint is anyway! But we Church people know, and we can't let the week go by without some mention of St George. Still, we don't know a great deal about him and I'm afraid that the fight with the dragon to save the damsel has as little to do with St George as does being ripped apart by horses with St Hippolytus. Both legends really derive from Greek mythology. But the dragon has a good story and I'll touch on it later. It's difficult to put together an accurate account of George's life because there is so much myth and legend tied in but, from the bits that we do have, it seems fairly certain that he was born in the second half of the third century in Cappadocia, pretty much in the centre of what is now Turkey. His parents were Christian and, when his father died, his mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her. He enlisted as a Roman soldier and rose to the rank of Tribune, a senior officer. He was still serving in Palestine (or had returned there) when in 303 and 304 Emperor Diocletian directed the most devastating and sustained persecution of the Early Church. George was said to have torn up a copy of Diocletian's order against Christian soldiers - but, whatever, he was certainly arrested, imprisoned and tortured, but refused to deny his faith. Eventually he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lydda or Lod) and beheaded. The earliest solid record that we have was by the prolific writer Pope Gelasius (pope between 492 and 496), who observed that George was one of the saints 'whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God'. And that was less than 200 years after George's death, so not much detail there. The first known British reference to George occurs in an account by St Ādamnan, an Irishman who became Abbot of Iona late in the seventh century: he had heard about him from Arcuif, a French bishop who had travelled to Jerusalem and other holy places in Palestine. The Venerable Bede also mentions George and the saint's reputation grew with the returning Crusaders. Indeed, in Fordington (an old village now a suburb of Dorchester) the church has above the south door an old stone carving of a miraculous appearance where, it was claimed, St George had led the crusaders into battle; naturally the church is dedicated to St George, believed to be the first church in England to have been so. Then, in 1222, the Council of Oxford named 23 April as St George's Day. And when Edward II founded the Order of the Garter in about 1348, he put it under the patronage of St George; and Edward IV & Henry VII subsequently built St George's Chapel, Windsor, as the chapel of the order. So from the 14th century then, St George came to be regarded, in England at least, as a special protector of the English; and English soldiers were told to wear 'a sign of St George' on their chest and back: the red cross that is now incorporated into our Union Flag and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy - and, of course, is the flag of the CofE too. The Feast of St George was promoted to principal status after the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin's Day 1415, when many believed that they had seen him fighting on the English side. But his popularity waned somewhat after the Reformation as religious beliefs changed and even more so as gunpowder became the main weapon of war, and the lance and sword became less significant. So much so that, in 1778, the Roman Catholic Church demoted St George's Day from a feast day to a simple day of devotion - and even that became optional in 1970. Nevertheless, by then, in 1940, King George VI had inaugurated the George Cross: the highest gallantry award for civilians, and for military personnel in actions not in the face of the enemy - in effect a civil version of the Victoria Cross. The reverse of the George Cross depicts George slaying the dragon ... and I promised to rehearse that tale! Much earlier, St George's role was seen as involving verbal jousting and violent suffering rather than knightly adventures and derring do, but in 1483 Caxton printed a book called the Golden Legend - largely a translation of a French collection of fantastic details of saints' lives - and it told the tale of St George and the Dragon. This story goes that, born in Cappadocia as we've heard, George became a knight and went one day to Libya, to a city called Silene (the same place as Cyrene perhaps?). And by this city was a lake in which lived a fierce dragon which terrorized the whole country. At first, the people there had fed the dragon 2 sheep every day so that it wouldn't attack them, but when that eventually failed to satisfy, they gave it a sheep and a human. The king decided that the sacrificial man or woman should be chosen by lot, and this went on until the lot fell upon the king's daughter. The king tried to bargain his way out of the deal, but the people were adamant that the girl should be fed to the dragon just as so many of their children had been. So the poor lass was taken to the lake and left there, alone. But soon, St George just happened to be passing, saw her and asked what was up. She told him and begged him to leave before the dragon arrived and killed him too. To which, in the words of Caxton's book, George replied 'Fair daughter, doubt ye no thing thereof for I will help thee in the name of Jesu Christ.' And she: 'For God's sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for ye may not deliver me.' At which stage the dragon appeared and rushed towards them for its lunch. George leapt on his horse and attacked the beast with his lance, injuring it severely and driving it to the ground. He then persuaded the girl not to be afraid but to put her girdle around the dragon's neck: it then obediently and quietly followed her as she lead it into the city, where, of course, it caused major panic until George told them all not to be frightened, saying (again according to Caxton's book) 'Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesus Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon.' So, naturally, the king and thousands of his people were baptized right away. George duly killed the dragon and had it dragged out of the city; the king established a church of Our Lady and St George, where a fountain of healing water sprang up; and they all lived happily ever after. And there's a Rossetti watercolour of George marrying the princess! [1864] So there we have it - all we know of St George and a bit extra too. But there is little connection with England per se. Indeed, George became very popular all around, for he's also the Patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; not to mention the cities of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and (with St Mark) Venice. He's also the Patron Saint of soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, farmers and field workers, horse riders and saddlers, and in more recent years, the Scouting movement. But hardly a full-time Anglophile. Scotland enjoys a real apostle as its patron, while Ireland and Wales have their home-grown saints - and celebrate them with enthusiasm. So how about an English saint for England? There's Alphege and Anselm and, obviously, of course, Alban, a Romano-Briton, the first English martyr, executed traditionally in the same Diocletian persecution as was St George, though more recent study indicates that he was martyred either 50 or 90 years earlier. But I don't need to press his case before this congregation ... though ‘Cry, “God for Harry, England and St Alban”’ doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it! Still, St George it is: he's done us well and we should celebrate him. As Pope Gelasius said '[his] name is rightly reverenced among us, but [his] actions are known only to God'. And so to finish, as we sit, let us pray the collect for St George's Day: O God of hosts, who didst so kindle the flame of love in the heart of thy servant George that he bore witness to the risen Lord by his life and death: grant us the same faith and power of love that we, who rejoice in his triumphs, may come to share with him the fullness of the Resurrection: through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [1772 words] Postscript follows >> Postscript In the earlier days of the pandemic, Ginni's message in Pax opened with the first verse of Psalm 46 as in the Book of Common Prayer: God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble]. And how appropriate that remains for us now. A lovely and well-know psalm - and I'll pass on one of those little quirks that are of no real use, but which are quite fun. I learnt it from Inspector Morse! If you count 46 words from the beginning of Psalm 46, and 46 words from the end, just see what you get. You need to use the version in the Authorized Version of the Bible (the psalms in BCP come from the earlier Great Bible of 1539 edited by Myles Coverdale). And don't count the Selah that you will see as a separate word at the very end of the last verse. Actually, Selah appears 71 times at the end of verses in the psalms (and 3 times in the book of Habakkuk), and we don't know exactly what it means, but it's probably either a musical direction or an instruction about the reading of the text, something like 'stop and listen', so stressing the importance of what has gone just before - a bit like Amen perhaps. Anyway, Psalm 46: 46 words from the beginning and 46 words from the end (not counting the Selah). I mentioned the answer in my sermon.

Evening Prayer
Bishop Alan's Sermon, Easter 2 19th April 2020