This morning I want to talk about St Margaret of Antioch, as it is her day.
We don’t usually celebrate minor saints, but I thought we could remember Margaret today because our Sister Church, St Margaret’s Lee is dedicated to her, and it makes a connection with our neighbours…
Also my inner feminist sees that women are under-represented in our calendar of saints, and it’s good to celebrate the women that are included.
But mostly I want to celebrate Margaret because I only just discovered her story and it has a dragon in it!
The Legend of St Margaret is recorded in the Mediaeval book of saints called “The Golden Legend.” Her story was written by a scholar called Theotimus, who was (despite his belief in dragons) described as a “learned man.”
Nothing certain is known about Margaret, but according to the legends recorded by Theotimus, she was the daughter of a pagan priest. When she converted to Christianity she was driven from home by her pagan father. She became a shepherdess and while out on the fields her beauty caught the attention of Olybrius, the prefect. She was not so taken with Olybrius, and he charged her with being a Christian because she spurned his advances.
Some people over-react when they fail to pull, but Olybrius was in another league: He had poor Margaret thrown in prison and tortured.
It was while she was in prison that she had an encounter with the devil who appeared to her in the form of a dragon.
According to the legend, the dragon swallowed her, but the cross she carried grew miraculously large and tore open the monsters belly allowing Margaret to escape. (It is thought to be because of this that she became the patroness of childbirth – (more on that later…)).
The next day, attempts were made to execute her by fire and then by drowning, but she was miraculously saved every time. As a result of her faith and these miracles thousands of spectators witnessing her ordeal were converted to Christianity (the story is not as happy as it sounds – all of the converts were promptly executed!). Finally, after fire, water, an encounter with the devil and a lot of bloodshed, she was beheaded, and finally died.
(As a little postscript – hers was one of the voices heard by Joan of Arc.)
I’m sure there could be an interesting Freudian analysis of Margaret causing the crucifix to grow and grow… The image reminds me of one of my favourite movies, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien (which was also subject to a lot of Freudian analysis in its day) where the monster erupts from John Hurt’s chest…
In another version of the story the crucifix doesn’t grow, but the resourceful Margaret discovers that it’s edge is sharp and uses it to slice open the Dragon from the inside and cut her way free.
Margaret is not content to run away, glad to escape with her life; she grabs the dragon by the hair (who knew dragons had hair?!) throws it to the ground and stamps on its neck until it tells him the truth about its pursuit of Christian souls!
Margaret kicks ass!
It goes without saying that the story about the dragon is not history.
How should we deal with this story of a fight with a dragon.
In our enlightened days we can be embarrassed by tales of monsters and the supernatural. Miracles make us uneasy and dragons are clearly ridiculous.
So should we brush aside the saints who’s stories are clearly fictions – the St Christophers, St Georges, St Cecelias and St Margarets?
The Christian tradition has another way to judge myths and legends, stories of faith and traditions. What did Jesus describe as ‘all the law and the prophets’? It was love. We are to judge people by the fruits they bear, and it is the same for stories of faith and traditions.
Margaret’s story has born much fruit. In the Middle Ages when childbirth was extremely dangerous she was the Saint that women prayed to disputing their pregnancies and the one they screamed to for help at the height of their labour.
Margaret is popular because of women’s experiences. Women who tie images of her around their middle with a ribbon during the later stages of pregnancy.
I’m not saying that Margaret stepped in from heaven to help them, but I am saying that the role model of a strong and fearless woman who faced down Satan himself was inspiring.
Noticing the marginalised is an essential element to any good inclusive church and St Margaret of Antioch is a saint who indirectly points us to the lived experiences of women and their faith – voices written out of or controlled by our church story.
It goes without saying that the story about the dragon is not history, but pious legends and fiction have helped Christians through the ages and can inspire us and uplift us.
I saw a poster recently that said:
“Blessed are the
the poets & misfits
the artists and writers
they force us
to see the world
The story of Margaret, the teenage girl who beat up the devil helps us to see the world differently.
Margaret, a teenage girl, thrown out by her parents, was able to resist the devil. Not just resist the devil, but slice him open and give him a kicking. I think she must be the Saint most similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I should know – I measure most saints by their similarity to Buffy)
Who knows the historical truth of her life.
But is Macbeth any less insightful if we learn there was a real Scottish King called Macbeth, and Shakespeare wrote with total disregard for historical accuracy about his life?
Or if Shakespeare is not your thing, is Breaking Bad any less profound if we learn that Walter White is entirely fictional? And it came as a bitter blow to discover as a child that Doctor Who wasn’t real, but the way that the Doctor used intelligence and courage to defeat evil and violence still inspired me.
Margaret gives us a vision of how a teenage girl can defeat a violent manifestation of evil. It may not be historical, but it can still be true.
I don’t often quote the American Evangelist, Billy Graham (in fact this is the first time) but he said “Courage is contagious. When a brave man [or woman] takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
Margaret gave courage to untold women facing perilous childbirths, and maybe her story can remind us of our many foremothers in the faith whose lives have become legend or been forgotten completely.
Her story of contagious courage can still change the world today.