Octave of St. George/Third Sunday after Easter
Today we celebrate the Octave of St. George, patron saint of England, as well as commemorating the Third Sunday after Easter. It is a surprising fact that, though St. George subsequently became the patron saint of many countries and is one of the most well known saints, little can be said about his life with any certainty. It seems clear that he was a soldier who died as a martyr for his refusal to participate in the imperial cult in the great persecution of the Church under the Emperor Diocletian. Everything else about his life remains obscure and conjectural. Some of the martyrs whom we commemorate in our liturgical calendar were the most prominent leaders of the early Church, such as St. Polycarp and St. Cyprian. For others, such as St. George, little more than their names and the fact of their martyrdom have been preserved for us. But they were all witnesses (and the word martyr means witness) of the faith of the early Church. What they all have in common is that, when challenged to renounce their faith and sacrifice to idols, they stood firm and were prepared to die as martyrs. The fact that this is the stuff of which legends were made shows how important their witness was in the life of the Church. For legend is the product of the life of the community, and the material it preserves in legend testifies to what it values most. The fact that the earliest Christian legends focus on the martyrs, that their relics were carefully preserved, and that (in subsequent ages of faith) great churches were often built in their honour on the site of their relics, shows how important their witness was in the life of the Church. That is why it is good to remember the names not only of the most well known and best attested martyrs, but also those of whom virtually nothing else is known, save that they died as martyrs for the faith.
In the case of St. George, his cultus soon became prominent in the East. It was not until the time of the Crusades that it became more widely known in the West. His adoption as the patron saint of England dates from this period. It may seem strange that England has as a national saint a man who was not actually English. Prior to the adoption of St. George as the national saint, the English had looked to St. Edmund, the East Anglian king who was killed by Viking invaders, as the national saint. If it were thought better to look back to the age of the martyrs, St. Alban, who lived at the same time as St. George, but was martyred in England (probably in the same great persecution under Diocletian) might seem a better candidate as the national saint. It may seem that Wales and Ireland have an advantage over England in this respect, in that their national saints, St. David and St. Patrick, were people who actually lived in these lands and played a pivotal role in their Christianisation. It is perhaps more difficult for us to identify with a saint such as St. George, who has no personal association with these islands.
However, there is one crucial advantage in having a national saint who had no direct personal association with these islands. It serves to remind us that Christianity is more than simply a national religion, and directs us back to the origins of our faith in the lands of the Middle East. It also enables us to reflect on the relation of the Christian faith to our national identity at a time when our society is polarised between the competing ideologies of nationalism and cosmopolitanism. The nationalist sees the nation as a home which belongs to those who were born here. Outsiders are sometimes welcome as guests, but they remain outsiders. By contrast, the cosmopolitan sees our society as more like a hotel, in which people may book different rooms, but they all remain visitors and no one truly belongs, for to say some belong and not others will cause division and conflict. Yet cosmopolitans can often be very contemptuous of non-cosmopolitans, the mass of humanity. Most people want to belong somewhere rather than nowhere. The Christian Church is sometimes co-opted by both nationalist and cosmopolitans in support of their contrasting political agendas.
However, if we are to take the Bible seriously as our starting point, a different picture emerges than either nationalism or cosmopolitanism. The Israelites were defined by their covenant with God. They were a mixed multitude of many tribes, yet Moses welded them into a unity because they all, high and low, rich and poor, were bound to the covenant. They subsequently conquered a land and had a monarchy and temple like other nations, but what ultimately united them as a people was their covenant with God. They were judged according to their faithfulness to the covenant. That is why they were able to survive the loss of land, monarchy and temple, because they were a people that “dwelleth alone, that shall not be numbered among nations”. Their identity was derived from their covenant with God.
The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a time when a new covenant, in which sins would be forgiven, would be written in the hearts of men. The first Christians believed that this covenant was sealed through the blood of Christ, his saving death and resurrection. The new covenant people of God, the Body of Christ, are those who have been baptised into Christ, and they are from every tribe, nation and tongue. Their life is sustained by the sacrament of the Eucharist. In this life they will continue to render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, for they will belong to an earthly society, whether it is nationalist or cosmopolitan, but their ultimate commonwealth is in heaven, as they await the Saviour’s second coming and that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
The peoples of these islands come from many different tribes, but what ultimately defined them was their adherence to this faith. The Venerable Bede could write the history of the English people before they obtained political unity because they were united as one people by their faith. The same could also be said of the nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, with their clan structure before they obtained political unity as nations. What ultimately gave them their distinct identity was the Christian faith.
Hence, when properly understood, there is nothing intrinsically nationalistic about the celebration of St. George’s day. In fact, it reminds us that the history of our faith is rooted in the Middle East and is far more than simply an expression of English national identity. Indeed, in having as a national saint an early Christian martyr who had no personal association with these islands, we are powerfully reminded of the limitation of a purely nationalistic understanding of our faith. It is important to remember that there is a distinction between patriotism, the love of our country, and the nationalist philosophy of my country right or wrong. There is a place for a proper patriotism in the Christian faith, but not for nationalism.
If the peoples of these islands are to find a way forward out of the current crisis, it will not come from either nationalism or cosmopolitanism but from the Christian faith. What ultimately matters about St. George is not the tribe he originally came from, but rather the faith he bore witness to by his martyrdom. Let us pray that we may follow in his footsteps and bare witness to that same faith in our own land in this time and place.