Sunday, 30 November 2014

Happy St. Andrew's Day!

Today is the 30th of November, the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, the patron saint of Scotland. This is a particularly significant St. Andrew's Day because it is the first since Scotland voted in September to remain a member of the United Kingdom, rather than risking separation under Alex Salmond.

St. Andrew was not a Scot himself, of course. Indeed, among the patron saints of the British Isles only Wales' and Ireland's patron saints, St. Patrick and St. David, ever lay foot in the nations they are now indelibly linked with, and only St. David was born in the country now under his patronage. England's St. George was a Roman soldier, whilst St. Andrew himself was a Judean, the brother of St. Peter and one of Christ's apostles. The story of how Andrew became associated with the Scottish nation is a long and curious one. For the most part, the saint is associated more with the East than with the windswept western European country of Scotland; it is alleged that after Jesus' death and resurrection, Andrew preached in the lands of Scythia to the north-east, travelling through today's Ukraine and Russia and reaching as far north as Novgorod, according to the Chronicle of Nestor, a history of the Kievan Rus' written by the Orthodox monk Nestor the Chronicler. He was also said to have founded the See of Byzantium (later known as Constantinople) in 38 AD. Today he is revered as the patron saint of Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

In c. 70 AD, Andrew was martyred by crucifixion in the city of Patras, Archaia, Greece. Early sources say he was bound to a cross like the one on which Jesus died, but later the story grew up that he had requested that he be crucified on an Crux decussata, or an x-shaped cross, feeling unworthy of being martyred in the same way as his Lord. The request was granted, and today this sort of cross is known as St. Andrew's Cross. According to legend, St. Andrew's relics were initially kept at the city where he was martyred, Patras, before the famed Roman Emperor Constantine I conquered the city and had them transferred to Constantinople. However, the monk St. Regulus was warned of Constantine's invasion by an angel in a dream, and so on the angel's instructions, Regulus took some of the relics to the "ends of the Earth" for safety. He was to build a shrine for the relics wherever he was first shipwrecked; and, as fortune (or God's will) would have it, he was shipwrecked on the coast of Fife in Scotland, where he met the Pictish King Óengus I. Today, the relics are said to be housed in St. Regulus' Church in the town of St Andrews, Scotland.

In 832 AD, it is said that King Óengus II of the Picts led a joint army of Scots and Picts into battle against the Angles under the leadership of King Æthelstan. Before the battle, the Pictish King prayed for divine intercession to aid the Picts against their numerically superior English foes, and promised that if he was victorious he would name St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland. On the day of the battle, the clouds above the battlefield formed the shape of St. Andrew's cross; emboldened by the apparent favour of the divine, the Picts and the Scots took to the battlefield full of religious zeal and defeated the much larger army of the Angles. Óengus kept his promise, proclaiming St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland, and adopted the white cross against the sky's blue background as the new national flag of Scotland.

Like much of Scotland's national myth, this story casts the English in the role of villains; I confess to finding this both sad and amusing at the same time. It is, however, all the more amusing and touching that today, over a millennium after that legendary victory is said to have taken place, St. Andrew's saltire and St. George's cross now coexist as part of the flag of the United Kingdom. Britain's national story is one of former foes laying down arms and uniting for the greater good, and shows that the most Christian of messages- that love and cooperation between neighbours can achieve more than war, hatred and distrust ever could- really is gospel truth. God bless Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Remember, remember...

King James VI and I
Today is the 5th November, the day loyal British subjects celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes' plot to assassinate His Majesty James VI and I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, at the State Opening of Parliament in 1605. "Remember, remember," the old rhyme goes, "the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot." Certainly, the Gunpowder Plot has never been forgotten, although today the holiday is generally treated more as an occasion for revelries than a celebration of our then-King's survival; on the plus side, although the 5th is today more about fireworks and bonfires than treason it has shed most of the anti-Catholic aspects of its celebration in the past. Most people now associate the "guy" being burned on the bonfire with Guy Fawkes himself, though clever clogs will tell you it was originally supposed to represent the Pope- that old rhyme goes on to say, "a rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, a penn'orth of cheese to choke him, a pint of beer to wash it down, and a jolly good fire to burn him."

Cover of the 1980s graphic
novel V for Vendetta.
While few mourn the deserved death of anti-Catholic prejudice in the UK (although it appears to be making a comeback among secular liberals incensed at the Church's refusal to admit its teachings over the last 1,000+ years have been wrong and join the secular humanist brigade, and in Northern Ireland it has sadly never gone away), I for one find it disturbing that the original meaning of the holiday- celebrating the King's safety- has become so twisted. The graphic novel and 2006 film adaptation V for Vendetta played a role in this; featuring a terrorist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who fights against an evil, fascist government in an alternate history version of the United Kingdom, the franchise celebrates Guy Fawkes as "a great citizen" who wished to "remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives." And so a religious terrorist who aimed to kill hundreds and establish a Catholic police state in the place of a Protestant police state becomes a hero of liberty, with "Guy Fawkes masks" becoming associated with groups such as the Occupy "movement" and the online "hacktivist" group Anonymous. In 400 years' time, I wonder if anyone will be wearing Osama bin Laden masks and celebrating the 9th September.

Children in the UK still learn the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot from a young age, and recently the holiday has experienced a rise in popularity. Although I was more of a Halloween fan as a child, sweets and costumes somewhat lose their appeal as one gets older, whilst fireworks remain as spectacular as ever- and how could a monarchist resist a holiday celebrating the King's survival of a coup d'état? Certainly, Halloween in its modern form is predominantly an American export, whilst the 5th November is a homegrown holiday and the closest thing the UK has to a national day- so it's patriotic to celebrate it, too. Hopefully this holiday will endure, as will the story of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators; but the most important thing to remember on the 5th November is that we are celebrating not the conspirators but their failure, and above all else today is a day to celebrate the triumph of the legitimate government over a terrorist plot.

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!