27 April 2022

The Great Martyr: Sermon on Low Sunday and the Feast of St George, Parish Church of St George, Hanover Square, London W1, 24th April 2022

Christ is risen!

So little is known of St George that in the 1960s his feast was downgraded in the Calendar of the Roman Church and it was even suspected that he may have been legendary. But surely that is the point of our following Jesus Christ, that it is not for our achievements and significance that we are remembered, but simply for taking up our Cross after him, faithful unto death. So it is for this that he is venerated in the Christian East, as one of those known as the Great Martyrs on account of their exceptional witness to Christ, in the face of exceptional barbarity.

This was a career-soldier of such great skill, integrity and loyalty that he served in the elite guards of the Emperor Diocletian in the late third century. Diocletian was an able ruler and military leader, bringing peace and stability to the vast empire under tensions within and from without. Yet economic and political problems shadowed the image of an all-competent autocrat, and it was convenient to blame religious minorities for supposedly undermining the imperial administration. You can imagine George’s pride in his part in restoring law and order in the Empire, and the despatch of its external enemies under Diocletian’s generalship. George would have been a man set for great things, as his service record extended with further honours and rising prospects for promotion in the Praetorian Guard. Except, that he was a Christian. Previously his problematic religion may have been tolerated; but now it was to blame for poor government performance, according to those who spin popular opinion. It seems that George had earlier come to Diocletian’s favourable attention, since, after the official exclusion of Christians had begun in earnest in 302, followed by outright persecution in 303, Diocletian and his officials may have sought to retain him, while others were put to the sword. Privations and tortures in mounting severity were meant to deter him from his Christianity; easing them an incentive to embrace the official Roman religion and its cult of the Emperor. You may imagine his protest of unimpeachable loyalty, and his appeal to his exemplary service record. There is even a story of the Empress Alexandra, and how the brutality led her first to admire the dignity and loyalty of the soldier who had done nothing to deserve such dishonour, and then to recognise the power of his faith in Christ as her own.

Not more than a few hundred yards from this Church is the road along which Christian martyrs were carted for many decades from Newgate prison at the City of London to their cruel dismemberment and execution at Tyburn, protesting their loyalty to England and to Queen Elizabeth I, but rejected as traitors for being Catholics and priests, such as I am. We know from contemporary accounts how many of them were loved as pastors and holy people by the wider population, not just the Catholic community. We also know that these martyrdoms, whatever the exuberance of some elements in the crowds, were also observed with silence and grave respect by others. I should recall that the executions of Protestants under Queen Mary were no less ill-advised and repellent to humane Catholics, who no more sought for the Reformation Protestants the violent repression that their co-religionists had endured under Henry VIII and Edward VI and would again endure under Elizabeth. By the time St George’s was built, England had exhausted itself of religious blood-letting and civil war. St George’s was to provide a new sacred space of godly learning and glorious music, especially that of Händel, that has been part of the shaping of our nation’s culture and Christian civilisation. Even while penal restrictions on Catholic Christians persisted, another nearby sanctuary of God’s adoration and freedom in the Holy Spirit arose for Catholics, at the Church of the Assumption and St Gregory on Warwick Street. Today we address our differences with the honest reconciliation of memory, and the practice of ecumenism and friendship, as well as in united service of those in need. We realise that we do not defend separate sides but are heirs to a history held in common. We are able to love, because we have been all been brought to our knees by the suffering of those who went before us, whose lives were called out of their bodies for being faithful to Christ, and because the hardness of heart in all of us has been melted by beauty and forgiveness, in worship and its music.

Both St George’s and the Assumption quietly stand in monumental witness to what has been sacrificed for faith in the past, and what is held in store for those who hope and trust. As St James has reminded us this morning, “The trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire” (James 1. 3-4). St George was certainly patient in his faith sorely tried in 303. His remains are venerated to this day in the Holy Land, and the crown of a life made perfect and entire is his. In his company are the martyrs whose relics are enshrined at Tyburn Convent, St John Southworth at Westminster Cathedral, and those Reformers whose memorials stand close to Smithfield at St James’s, Clerkenwell.

Yet these are not remembrances of death, but of life. The feast of St George that we celebrate today has fallen in the Octave of Easter; and he and they are witnesses that all who have been baptized into Christ, were “baptized into his death, thus buried in order to be raised with Him from the dead through the glory of the Father, and walk in newness of life” (Romans 6. 3-4). The remains of St George at Lod and of the saints in all kinds of other shrines, together with all the Churches raised in their honour, are not memorials to a life that receded into the past, but they are, so to speak, relics of Christ’s act of resurrection and edifices of the Kingdom that is now and for ever. For “every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit” (John 15.2). Our holy and honoured martyrs and heroes were not destroyed, but made fruitful for more vigorous growth and enduring life: life that is not mere survival in this world, but the fulness of life in eternal heaven lived now upon temporary earth.

Today in our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, owing to ancient calendrical calculations by which we and the West over time fell out of step, it is Pascha, Easter Day. We sing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs giving life.” We are singing this dozens of times today because yesterday we sang, “Today the Abyss sighed and cried out, My power has been destroyed. For I received a dead Man as one of their dead, but I could not hold Him. Then I also lost with Him all those who were under His power. From the beginning I held the dead, but now this One raises them. Glory to Your Cross and resurrection, O Lord.”

I cannot fail to recall those people who are our fellow Christians in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Reformed Baptist Church, Ukrainian Jews and Muslims, and other Ukrainian people, all of whom have done nothing wrong and provoked nothing, but only served and lived, like St George, with faithful love, integrity, and loyal virtue. This week we have heard of horrific sexual attacks inflicted upon children, women and even young soldiers taken captive. Several of our churches around the world have been desecrated, and a priest managed to save his children with only moments to spare after his wife was woken and saw an intruder light petrol poured through their door while they slept. At the beginning of Lent, a priest was confronted at gunpoint by a soldier pretending to be a monk ordering him to abandon his Catholic faith by either becoming Russian Orthodox or a pagan, saying, “It makes no difference”. And at the end of Lent on Good Friday, a car was driven at speed right into our cathedral at Ternopil, destroying the Cross and the Shroud of Christ that we lay out for the people who pour out their love and devotion before them.

We have no argument with our Russian and Russian Orthodox friends - our people wish they had no argument with us. What we cannot understand is why Christian hearts, after the receding past of enmity and estrangement, should abandon the dialogue of love and instead turn on other Christians, harming the innocent on the days of Christ’s own trials, even on the feast when He brings nothing but life and peace - and not destruction, but salvation and his own divine beauty. St George’s is a haven of this beauty that saves the world, a potent symbol of faithful discipleship in the footsteps of Christ, and the beacon of St George its patron who followed Him as far as death and into the kingdom of life that is everlasting. So may St George, who is also the patron of this our beloved homeland, as well as patron of the City of Moscow, by his patient endurance, by the perfection with which he was crowned, pray for those entrusted to his intercession, break the hearts of those who have chosen to be evil, and share with them the gift he himself has received – peace and resurrection, and the life of a Kingdom that is not of this world but which we pray every day will come on earth as it is in heaven.

St George the Great Martyr, pray for us. Glory to England. Glory to Ukraine. Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory for ever. Christ is risen.

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