Homily preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Thursday 23rd April 2020 (George, Martyr, Patron of England)
Revelation 12.7–12; Psalm 126; 2 Timothy 2.3–13; John 15.18–21
George is remembered as a soldier of the Roman army, probably a Greek speaker from Palestine, who was put to death for refusing to renounce Christianity, either in the last decade of the third century or the first decade of the fourth. If he’d been born just a couple of decades later, he might have lived to see the Edict of Milan in 313, when Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity should be tolerated throughout the empire.
There were churches dedicated to George in England before the Norman Conquest, but his cult took off when English soldiers learnt more about him on the crusades, and so this warrior saint replaced Edward the Confessor as the patron of England.
But George isn’t a saint because he was a soldier – he’s a saint because he was a martyr, which in Greek originally meant one who witnessed or testified. The Revelation to John, from which our first reading was taken, established a theology of martyrdom to encourage persecuted Christians in the late first century. At the beginning of the book Jesus is called the ‘faithful witness’ (Rev. 1.5), a model for Christians to emulate. He stood firm to the end and suffered death, but now lives and is victorious over the powers of evil. But he’s not the only example of triumphant dying that the book gives us.
In our reading we heard the original dragon-slaying story, that of the archangel Michael casting the devil out of heaven. After this ‘a loud voice’ rejoices that
[…] the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony [martyría],
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
‘Not only Christ has conquered, the martyrs have conquered too, and so can you,’ the book is saying.
So what about us? What about our witness to Christ? We tend to think that the early martyrs like George testified to Christ with their lips and with their deaths, but, like Jesus, they actually testified with their whole lives.
Once the age of martyrdom was over, it didn’t take Christians long to realize this. I’ll finish with these words from Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan in the fourth century:
You are a witness for Christ when, in the light of God’s commandments, you resist the greed that would seize the possessions of a minor or violate the rights of a defenceless widow, and instead of inflicting injury offer them help. […] You are a witness for Christ when you resist pride, when on seeing the poor and needy, you tenderly take pity on them, preferring humility to arrogance. In all this you give your testimony not merely with your lips but with your deeds.