St Margaret of Antioch

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Wednesday 20 July 2022. Here it is for you again:

Like St George and many other saints, it is a little bit doubtful whether Margaret of Antioch, our patron saint, actually lived, and the stories about her definitely have a mythical feel to them, especially the famous one where she was swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon but escaped alive when the cross she was carrying hurt the dragon’s insides so he let her out unharmed. The point is not whether we believe that dragons exist, but that knowing the cross of Christ can defeat them. You may wear a cross around your neck or own a little holding cross. And you may know the strength it has given you.

Margaret was born in the fourth century at a time when people still worshipped the pagan gods like Zeus and Athena. Her father was a pagan priest and her mother died when she was a baby, so she was brought up by a foster mother, who happened to be Christian. Margaret was baptised, and when her father heard about it, he disowned her.

When she was 15 she was out with the other girls looking after her nurse’s sheep when an official called Olybrius walked past. He saw her and immediately wanted her because she was very beautiful. So he sent his servants to fetch her, and decided that she would be either his wife or his mistress, depending on her social class at birth.

It didn’t occur to him that she might have a say in the matter. She was young and female he was a member of the ruling class. She would be grateful for the honour bestowed upon her by this older, more powerful man.

But Margaret was having none of it. She had decided to commit herself to God as a consecrated virgin – a bit like being a nun, but not living in community with other women. A married woman would probably have had babies every year or two and been expected to make sure that her husband was comfortable, his every need or whim considered. Margaret didn’t want that sort of life. She wanted to be free to serve God.

Olybrius asked Margaret about her social status, her name and her religion. A Christian? Surely not! But she could recant and put it all behind her and worship the pagan gods like a respectable member of society. But Margaret argued back. She knew what she was talking about when it came to religion. But the powerful have the last word. He had her tortured.

Onlookers thought it such a waste that her beauty was destroyed. Margaret would have none of that. Her identity was her baptism in Christ, not in her appearance. Olybrius couldn’t bear to watch because there was so much blood. But Margaret believed that her sufferings were an offering to God. She died a very slow and painful death, and people were amazed at how tough she was. She remained faithful to Christ to the end. She, paradoxically, became the patron saint of expectant mothers, especially those enduring difficult labours. Young women were comforted in the knowledge that they could endure pain as well, if not better than any man.

At first glance Margaret’s story is from bygone times when women were mere chattels to be given or sold or taken by force. We live in a different world.

Yet some things have not changed. Scratch the surface of Twitter and you find that women who speak out for a cause – any cause that is not universally popular – are subject to sexual insults and threats of rape. Professor Mary Beard, refuses to conform to expectations to make herself as attractive as possible, leaving her hair grey and wearing casual clothes on television. When she spoke out on the Question Time programme about immigration, she suffered a barrage of vitriolic tweets, largely from men, which are wholly unrepeatable. There is still within our culture a streak of violence and hatred from men directed at women, especially at the ones they see as strong.

Margaret is not such a bad role model for our young women. Outspoken, tough and refusing to let men put her down or silence her. Her story reminds us that although we may not be privileged and may be subject to put downs by people who think that their age, gender or race makes them in some way superior, our true identity is in Christ, and our value is in being a beloved child of God.

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