Today we celebrate the feast of St. Margaret of Antioch, our patron saint. The legends vary widely about Margaret, but in general, her story goes a bit like this. Margaret was born to a pagan father, but Margaret was raised by a nurse. The nurse introduced Margaret to Christianity, and the father disowned her. As a young teen, she devoted herself to Jesus Christ, vowing to remain his bride for the rest of her life. A few years later, a wealthy man passed her way and requested to take her as his mistress. She refused, and he had her imprisoned and beaten. Her captors felt sorry for her and begged her to submit to the man, but she assured them that though they saw suffering, she saw her pain as “sweeter than cream.”[i] In her weakened state, she is believed to have faced a dragon, though some refer to the dragon as a demon or Satan himself. The dragon tried to swallow her, and with a cross she held in her hand, she defeated the dragon. Of course, this victory did not seal her fate. Still refusing to submit to the rich man, she was eventually beheaded.
When I explain to outsiders about which Margaret is our patron saint, I often explain how we picked the weird one. First of all, relating to martyrs is always difficult for modern Christians. Few of us will ever face torture or persecution for our faith. Though we may admire their commitment, imagining how we would show similar dedication is challenging. Furthermore, relating to someone who commits their virginity to Jesus Christ might be difficult for many of us. Though we may admire nuns and monks today, whose lives also involve a commitment to chastity, very few of us can imagine such a rule for ourselves. Besides, we get entirely uncomfortable just talking about sex in church. Add in the bizarre story about the dragon, and most of us start to mentally check out or at least assign Margaret to the category of fiction. This distance creates a barrier for finding meaningful connection to Margaret.
Of course, some of our resistance is aided by our conflicted feelings about the value of saints. What I appreciate about saints in the Episcopal Church is that we have a broader definition of saints than the Roman Catholic Church. We have a wider variety of saints that are commemorated throughout the year, and in fact, our weekly Thursday Eucharist here at St. Margaret’s always focuses on a saint of the church. What I find most appealing about saints is that they can often be aids for us in prayer. Either we can pray to be more like a certain saint, or we can use saints as a vehicle through whom we pray to God. St. Margaret of Antioch was known as the patron saint of women in childbirth. “Because of the promises made just before Margaret’s death to assist anyone – especially women in childbirth – who has [St. Margaret’s] life written down, reads it, or has it read to them…[some of the copies of her story were] written on long strips of parchment which were fastened around the abdomens of women in labor.”[ii] Though that practice may sound silly to us now, who has not prayed to St. Anthony when they lost something, or purchased a St. Joseph when trying to sell a home?
Perhaps where we find the most help today in understanding St. Margaret is from our reading from Ecclesiasticus. The author begins the final chapter with these words, “And I sent up my prayer from the earth, and begged for rescue from death. I cried out, ‘Lord, you are my Father; do not forsake me in the days of trouble, when there is no help against the proud.’” I imagine Margaret cried out to God in a similar way in that prison cell. I imagine there was nothing but prayer on her lips. But even more than crying out to God in her pain and suffering, I imagine that Margaret more so prayed the words that the author of Ecclesiasticus also prayed, “I will praise your name continually, and will sing hymns of thanksgiving.” Despite her many trials – being disowned, being captured and tortured, and being threatened with death – she somehow saw the sweetness of Christ in all of her trials. She could still come to God in praise and thanksgiving, despite facing circumstance that called for nothing of the sort.
St. Margaret has a lot to teach us about today about prayer. I was just in conversation with someone this week about their prayer life, and they confessed how good they are with their “thank yous and pleases” to God, but how rarely their prayer life is filled with adoration of God. We all struggle with this kind of prayer relationship with God. We are quite good at coming to God when we need something, and we occasionally remember to thank God for our blessings. But rarely do we stand before God, arms and hands open and just stand in awe of our God. We get caught up in a relationship with God as an exchange, and we forget how huge our God is and how tremendous God’s presence in our lives is.
Today, Margaret invites us to remember the awesomeness of our God. She reminds us of the incredible work began here in Plainview fifty years ago in her name. And she invites us into a prayer of adoration for the bountiful grace that awaits us in our next fifty years. For the First Communion we celebrate today, for the bountiful produce that our Garden of Eatin’ is producing, for the blessing of Holy Matrimony that a couple plans for this afternoon, for the blessed fellowship we enjoyed yesterday at the Gibsons’, for the gift of life and ministry in this place, and for the saint who reminds us of the awesomeness of our God, we will praise the Lord’s name continually, and we will sing hymns of thanksgiving this day. Amen.
[i] Sherry L. Reams, ed., Middle English Legends of Women Saints (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003), 119.
[ii] Reams, 111.