Today is the feast of St George, patron saint of England.
Leader now on earth no longer,
Soldier of th'eternal King,
Victor in the fight for heaven,
We thy loving praises sing.
Great Saint George, our patron, help us
In the conflict be thou nigh;
Help us in that daily battle,
Where each one must win or die.
As the celebration of someone whom the Church calls "saint", the first meaning of the day is that we celebrate the Christian mystery as it is expressed in the life of St George. According to my concise edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints, the story of St George and the dragon is a "later accretion", there being no certain traces of it before the 12th century. "There is every reason to believe that St George was a real martyr who suffered at Diospolis (ie Lydda) in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine. Beyond this there seems to be nothing which can be affirmed with any confidence. The cult is certainly early." Fr Ray has a post about the legends of St George. How St George came to be the patron of England is also unclear. What is interesting is that our continued devotion to St George depends so heavily on a devotion that is passed down from the earliest days of the Church.
It is quite fitting that the celebration of St George should extend from its religious meaning to also gain a meaning as a celebration in public life - a party, if you like.
Unfortunately, this is sometimes associated with an unsavoury style of politics. The far-right British National Party have adopted the celebration of St George as part of their campaigning. They claim a "traditional Christian identity" - but this has to be challenged. Alan Craig, the Christian Choice candidate for the elections for Mayor of London on 1st May, has a post on this that makes interesting reading: Now for something shocking. "The shock was how far and how much the BNP clothe their narrow nationalist and racist dogma in ‘Christian’ garments." Alan Craig warns against being taken in by this deceit.
This appropriation of St George for political ends is not confined to the BNP. My own Member of Parliament, who might be described as being on the right of the Conservative Party, took out an advertisement in this week's local newspaper. It wished all readers a happy St George's day - no problem here - but also included references to fighting for Romford and putting Britain first. There is a certain tension between this promotion of a culture of self-interest and the sacrifice of a Christian martyr.
Happy feast day!