2 Kings 22: 8-13, 23: 1-3
The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.’ When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, ‘Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.’ Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.’ Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’
Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.
Matthew 7: 15-20
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits
On the 23rd April we celebrated St George as the patron saint of England – the flag which bears the red cross on a white background represents the cross of St George and also of England, as football fans delight in reminding us.
However, there are some people who think that he is not necessarily the best choice for our patron saint, particularly since he was not English and probably never came to England at all. Other saints have a closer association with our country and also our Christian faith – saints such as St Cuthbert, St Aidan, St Frideswide, St Hilda and – my suggestion as a suitable patron saint, St Alban, whose day we celebrate today.
So let’s look at St George. Little is known about him, apart from the fact that he was a martyr and that he suffered in Lydda, in Palestine, where his tomb was shown. The well-known story in which he slays a dragon and rescues the king’s daughter is, of course, a legend with no basis in truth – and seems to be his only claim to fame! Little else is known about him; he may or may not have been a soldier and it was because he was adopted by the soldiers during the Crusades, in particular Richard I that he became the patron of soldiers and subsequently of England, one of the more unexpected destinies of Palestinian soldier-saints making him the symbol of English nationalism and prowess, initially in war and subsequently in football!
In contrast Alban, a Roman soldier was based in the Roman town of Verulamium, in occupied Britain. One night, at the height of a violent storm, he discovered a man taking refuge in his stable, took him into his house and fed him. Alban discovered that this man was a priest of the new Christian religion, and, after talking with him for some time, realized that this was, indeed the truth, was converted and baptized. However, news of the priest’s whereabouts came to the ears of the authorities, who sent soldiers to Alban’s house to search it. Alban exchanged clothes with the priest in order to allow him to escape. He himself was arrested, and, after refusing to offer sacrifice to one of the Roman gods, was condemned to death. Legend has it that the executioner who was to behead Alban was himself converted by the strength of Alban’s faith, and another had to be drafted in, to perform the execution. Alban was beheaded on this day in the year 250 and so became the first British martyr.
Alban, subsequently to become a saint, was buried nearby, and later his grave became a shrine, a place of pilgrimage with pilgrims attesting to healing miracles performed there. Its popularity grew and eventually an Abbey was built on that spot. Today the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, containing a shrine to the saint, is still a place of pilgrimage and it has given its name to the city built around it. Meanwhile the former mighty Roman city of Verulamium is now a collection of ruins with a museum of ancient remains. The might of Rome has been superseded by the execution place of a Roman soldier who was willing to die for his Christian faith.
The Cathedral and Abbey church is still a place of pilgrimage; each Easter Monday crowds of young people – and those young at heart – from all over the diocese make the journey, usually on foot. I can remember when the Church Hall was the overnight stop for groups travelling from a distance, their numbers swelled by local people joining them. The grounds of Luton Hoo, the local mansion, then privately owned, would be open to allow the pilgrims to walk through as they headed towards St Albans.
St Albans is the diocese to which my family belonged after we moved to Luton in 1971. We attended St Mary’s Church in Luton, a beautiful mediaeval building, its black and white stone exterior having a unique chequerboard effect; both our children were confirmed and married there and it became my ‘sending parish’ when I offered for ordination. I was deaconed and priested in St Albans Abbey and served in the Diocese until my retirement. Whenever I revisit the Abbey I attend the midday Eucharist celebrated in the shrine chapel, a small, intimate place for worship, dedicated to its patron saint.
A great Cathedral Church and Abbey serving St Albans Diocese and a lovely city – all the result of a Roman soldier offering shelter to a Christian priest. From one single act of kindness has come so much!
A Roman soldier, who gave his life to protect an English priest and subsequently became a saint with, not only a Cathedral named after him but also a city. Surely he should be England’s patron saint, rather than St George, about whom little is known, who had no link to our country during his life time and whose claim to fame is a legend in which he slays a dragon and rescues the king’s daughter!
Finally, I turn to our Gospel reading for today. Jesus refers to false prophets and knowing them by their fruits. George was undoubtedly a martyr, dying for his faith in Palestine; Alban was also a martyr, dying to save the life of a Christian priest. Whatever conclusion you might reach about these two men we give thanks for them both, for their faith and their willingness to give their lives for their belief in the living God.