Wednesday 23 April 2014

We might have to change the English flag, but Alban is a better choice for patron saint than George

 St George's Day, 23 April, may go almost unnoticed in England, but the dragon slayer is also the patron saint of many other countries, cities and regions - where traditions range from street parties and carnivals to the simple act of handing out red roses.

An interesting article on the BBC website today reminds us that Palestinians have particular reason to display the symbol and revere the early Christian martyr. For them he is a local hero who opposed the persecution of his fellow Christians in the Holy Land.

St George was a Roman soldier during the Third Century AD, when the Emperor Diocletian was in power.

It is said that he once lived in al-Khadr near Bethlehem, on land owned by his mother's family.

The saint is remembered for giving away his possessions and remaining true to his religion when he was imprisoned and tortured before he was finally executed.

There are many churches in the West Bank and Israel today that bear the name of St George - at al-Khadr, Lod and in the Galilee, for example.

In the 1,700 years or so since his death, he has also become identified with other figures, some historical and some mythical.

The legend of him saving a maiden by killing a dragon probably originated in the Middle Ages.

But quite why someone, however noble, who lived in Palestine in the third century should be the patron saint of England is anyone’s guess, especially when there is a far better home-grown candidate from the same century who actually lived and died here.

The city of St Albans, where I live, is named after Alban, who is generally accepted to be the first Christian martyr in Britain. He was a resident of Verulamium, the Roman town on the site, at the time the third largest in Britain after London and Bath.

Whilst sheltering a priest fleeing from persecution Alban became a Christian himself and was beheaded for refusing to recant. The full civil trial that led to his execution in AD 209 was advised by the son of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus who was visiting the town at the time.

After Verulamium had fallen into ruin they built a church and later a cathedral out of its bricks on the very spot where Alban had lost his life. The cathedral still contains a shrine dedicated to him.

Alban was not the only resident of St Albans to give his life for his faith. In 1555 a non-conformist, George Tankerfield, was burnt at the stake outside the cathedral for refusing to believe the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (that the bread and wine at the eucharist literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

One doesn’t face death now in Britain for becoming a Christian or refusing to believe denominational doctrine and certain not for being a non-conformist. (Our own church was formed when a group of non-conformist believers were thrown out of what is now St Albans Cathedral  during the great ejection in 1662. It now meets peacefully just a hundred yards from the Cathedral gate).

But that aside, the events of Alban’s life illustrate two great eternal truths.

Alban gave his own life whilst at the same time clothing a stranger in a cloak of protection. In this way he was giving witness to his own master Jesus Christ, who through his death on the cross in our place clothes us with his own righteousness, thus protecting us from the judgement of God which we all rightfully deserve. This is the truth of substitutionary atonement, the very heart of the Christian faith, which we celebrate at Easter.

And just as the bricks of Alban’s Roman town were taken to build a cathedral as testimony again to Jesus, so the Kingdoms of this world will be superseded and conquered by the Kingdom of God which will endure forever. This is the truth of God’s sovereign rule over history and Christ’s triumph over and redemption of all creation.

By God's design, Rome took the lives of both Jesus and Alban. But Rome is long dead whilst Christ lives, and through him Alban and we also, if we respond to him in repentance and faith.

So by all means keep George for England’s patron saint if you will, but as for me, I’m with Alban and would be happy to substitute his flag (left)  for George’s Red Cross on a white background any day. 

It needn’t change the Union Jack that much either -  the various flags of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland together would give us the same basic red, white and blue arrangement. All we would need to add is a strip of yellow to the diagonals. Think about it.

1 comment:

  1. But think how many other flags would have to change, starting with New Zealand!


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