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When I was at school we were taught about the difference between a myth and a legend. A myth, we were told, is a story which is not true; whereas a legend is a story which is based on the truth. In later life I realised that things are not quite so simple. It is easy to see how a tale of something which did actually happen could be exaggerated, and so, maybe in order to enhance the reputation of an individual, it was claimed that something which is not really possible did truly happen, leading to the blurring of the line between fact and fiction.. What, then, of the myth?
Jesus used the power of stories to teach. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not an historical event of an incident (though such things may happen.) But there is a truth which this story teaches us. Myths do not pretend to be historical truth, but there is usually a truth embedded in them which transcends history. So I would say that my teacher got it wrong when he taught us that a myth is not true.
I say all this because when we celebrate Saint Margaret of Antioch, the events of her life are a mingling of history and myth. She is mentioned in a ninth century hagiography, and then in The Golden Legend in the thirteenth century, and as she was martyred in the year 304, the passing of the centuries will have led to some adding to the facts. We must, however, bear two things in mind. These manuscripts may have been written long after her life, but the stories they tell of Saint Margaret were not created then, and are probably what the faithful taught about her over the ages. Secondly, the very fact that these stories were told points to the importance the Church attached to her life and martyrdom. We know so little of many of the martyrs from the time of Diocletian, but they clearly mattered to the early Christians as some of their names were included in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Church. When I am dead, my story will not live on in that same way - nor the stories of most of us. This speaks to the special holiness of Saint Margaret.
You see the principal part of her story involves a dragon. Her statues, like the ones here in the Priory of Our Lady, show her with a dragon. Now I say this with some trepidation - being a Welshman who also taught Welsh for forty years in a secondary school, where my national flag bears a red dragon - dragons do not actually exist. They are fictional. Mythical. Yet cultures all over the world tell stories of dragons, and attempts by some to identify a real living creature on which they are based do not answer the question why they feature in our folklore. They are there to show that they are dangerous, threatening, frightening, evil.
Saint Margaret rejected the advances of a Roman official, and was imprisoned, and when she prayed to see her true enemy, the dragon appeared. There are two versions of what happened next. In one she made the sign of the cross before him and he disappeared. In the other the dragon swallowed her, and there in the dragon’s belly she held up the cross which she was wearing, which grew in size so that the dragon’s belly exploded and set her free.
This is the clash between good and evil. In Revelation, Saint John portrays Satan as a dragon, and the story of Saint George killing the dragon is seen by some as his conquering evil. Saint Margaret, just like Saint Agnes, was young and beautiful, and chose to consecrate her virginity to Christ. Olybrius, having been attracted to her, wanted her as his wife. Not only would this mean breaking her promise to God, but he also demanded that she renounce her faith, which she would not do. Indeed, she even tried to convert him. So he had her imprisoned and tortured, but she chose this willingly rather than reject her Lord. The two parables in our gospel reading remind us how we must let nothing stand in the way of God. When we find the hidden treasure, or the pearl of great price, nothing else should be as important. Margaret, like many martyrs, was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, rather than abandon her faith.
The original meaning of martyr was witness, and it is through the witness of the martyrs that the Church grew. There are dragons which assail us still, in many shapes and guises, and we are called to defeat them. We shall succeed if we are constant and true.
There is also a lesson for us from earlier in Saint Margaret’s life. Her father was a pagan priest, and when Margaret was still quite young, her mother died. So Margaret was brought up by her nurse, Theotimus, who was a Christian. She taught the faith to Margaret, and when her father learned this he disowned her, and Theotimus adopted her as her own daughter. It was at this time that she worked as a shepherdess, and there are illustrations of her with her flock. Theotimus understood the need to share the faith with others, and her influence produced a saint.
How did we become believers? Somebody guided us. When something brings us great joy, and matters to us, we long to share it with others. Enthusiasts for many things will tell you, at length sometimes, about their passions. These pale into insignificance when compared with the good news of the Gospel. Yet how reticent we can be to declare our faith, and slow to learn more about it, so that we can share it with others!
In the eastern Church, Margaret is known as Marina the Great Martyr. She is said to have prayed at her death that women in childbirth would, when they invoked her name, give birth to their child safely, as she had been delivered from the belly of the dragon. She is also the patron saint of nurses, and intercedes for those who call on her when they are dying.
Great devotion to Saint Margaret grew up in this country, and there are over 250 churches dedicated to her in England and Wales. Among them is Saint Margaret’s in Westminster, the parish church of the Houses of Parliament. In the parish of Saint Margaret’s in Roath, Cardiff, the Society of Saint Margaret opened Saint Margaret’s House of Mercy in 1882, with a chapel and a children’s home. The sisters remained there until 1934, when Saint Teilo’s became a student hostel. Mirfield Fathers took over the hostel in 1945, and then in the sixties the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Name ran Saint Teilo’s as a retreat house and conference centre. When they moved away, the statue of Saint Margaret from the chapel was moved to the parish church. I stayed at Saint Teilo’s for my Provincial Selection Conference (for acceptance for ordination) in the seventies.
Saint Margaret is also one of those saints known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers, to whom people have turned in prayer in time of difficulty. Saint Joan of Arc asked for her intercession, as did the Crusaders to the Holy Land. We can pray to her now in this time of pandemic.
The Society of Saint Margaret, of which many of us are associates, currently has houses in England, Sri Lanka, Haiti and the United States. Supported by our prayers (and sometimes by our labours) the sisters still offer service to others in a variety of ways, under the patronage of Saint Margaret. The young saint and martyr inspires us to do Christ’s work in the world. She is a reminder to us of the need to be faithful.
Saint Margaret challenges us. Do we compromise with the world at every turn? Do we find excuses to avoid any inconvenience that our faith might cause us? Not to mention martyrdom! Let us pray that as we admire the wisdom and example of our Patron, we shall realise again and again that there are times when compromise and moral ambiguity just will not do, and then pray for the strength to live up to such moments when they happen.
This is what Saint Margaret did. Let us invoke her to pray for us to be faithful servants of Christ.