My patron saint for March is something of an enigma.
She was a widely popular saint about whom we know almost nothing for sure. In the West, she is known as St Margaret of Antioch of St Margaret the Virgin and in the East, as St Marina the Great Martyr.
The Vita of St Margaret
The first account of her life comes from the 9th Century, although she is believed to have lived in the late 3rd Century. St Margaret was said to be a daughter of a pagan priest from Antioch in Pisidia. Her mother died when she was young and she was raised by her nurse, a Christian. St Margaret took after her in the faith and went to live with her as a shepherdess.
One day, while she was in the fields, the local prefect Olybrius saw her and decided he would marry her. St Margaret, however, had made a vow of chastity to the Lord and refused. The prefect did what Roman prefects seem to do in these situations. He threw her in prison and had her viciously tortured.
So far, it’s your fairly typical virgin-martyr hagiography. Girl meets God. Guy meets girl. Girl doesn’t care because God. Guy tortures her because he just can’t deal. In prison, however, St Margaret’s story gets very interesting. The imprisoned saint prayed that God would reveal the demon she fought against inwardly.
And then a dragon appeared in her cell and swallowed her.
St Margaret held tight to the cross in her hands and it so irritated the dragon’s sensitive stomach, he burst and she emerged unscathed from his belly. (Don’t laugh, we all have tummy troubles sometimes.) But the dragon wasn’t done. He turn into a demon.
So St Margaret grabbed a hammer and smashed him to pieces… as you do.
The next day, her torments continued. The Golden Legend explains that she was put in a pot of boiling water.
But suddenly the earth trembled, and the blessed virgin without any hurt issued out of the water, saying to our Lord: “I beseech you, My Lord, that this water may be to me the fount of Baptism in to everlasting life.” And anon there was heard great thunder, and a dove descended from heaven, and set a golden crown on her head… Then Olybrius, seeing the faith of the holy Margaret immoveable, and also fearing that others should be converted to the Christian faith by her, gave sentence and commanded that she should be beheaded…
Ultimately, St Margaret was beheaded and entered the company of virgin-martyrs as a vanquisher of demons.
St Margaret and the Dragon of Death
It’s hard to know what to take away from St Margaret’s life. Let’s be honest, the dragon stuff didn’t happen. (I know, it almost kills me to have to admit that.) Even the credulous Golden Legend says it’s a metaphor. But it’s the symbolic imagery which still resounds through the centuries.
The dragon is a symbol of the devil and of death which devours all. As Christians, we follow Christ by entering into death and, through the power of the Cross, burst forth to new life. The Fathers even use fairly graphic imagery to show how Christ defeated death by going into death. For example, St John Chrysostom compared death to a dragon and our Lord, that Body, whom death could not contain.
That Body, which he could not digest, he [death] received: and therefore had to cast forth that which he had within him. Yea, he travailed in pain, while he held Him, and was straitened until he vomited Him up. Wherefore says the Apostle, ‘Having loosed the pains of death.’ (Acts 2:24) For never woman labouring of child was so full of anguish as he was torn and racked in sunder, while he held the Body of the Lord. And that which happened to the Babylonian dragon, when, having taken the food it burst asunder in the midst, this also happened unto him. For Christ came not forth again by the mouth of death, but having burst asunder and ripped up in the very midst, the belly of the dragon, thus from His secret chambers (Psalm 19:5) right gloriously He issued forth and flung abroad His beams not to this heaven alone, but to the very throne most high.
Yep, this holy Doctor of the Church compared our Lord’s resurrection from the death vomiting. It’s like death throwing up a meal that didn’t quite sit right. I think that’s fantastic. In fact, it’s more graphic than that because death doesn’t just vomit up the Bread of Life, this Body bursts death asunder and so allows everyone to escape from the imprisonment of death’s belly.
St Margaret and our Fear of Death
This March, we celebrate the Paschal Mystery. It’s hard to believe it’s almost Easter but it is! This March, I really want to understand the liberation Christ offers us from the fear of death. Yes, we will die physically but as I wrote in my last post about euthanasia and the prosperity gospel, that doesn’t mean we have to live in the fear of death. (This stuff must be on my mind or something!)
All fear is really a fear of death and this fear drives sin. When we fear death, we act out of self-preservation. We become selfish and unloving. Perfect love, remember, casts out fear (1 John 4:18). In his excellent book The Slavery of Death, psychologist and theologian Richard Beck explains that,
Almost every unwholesome pursuit of humanity — from hedonism to self-aggrandizement to acquisitiveness to rivalry to violence — can be traced back to these basic survival fears. The fear of death creates the experience of the satanic in our lives.
This is solid theology and solid psychology. It’s the ancient insight of our faith and the truth psychologists keep coming back to. Fear drives sin and every fear is, in some form, the fear of death. St John Chrysostom knew it well.
He who fears death is a slave, and submits to all things rather than die… [but] he that fears not death is out of reach of the devil’s tyranny… For he fears no one, he is in terror of no one, he is higher than all, and more free than all… And when the devil finds a soul such as this, he can accomplish in it none of his works.
My God, I ask for the grace to be truly free from the fear of death and all fear which imprisons. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and pour your love into my heart. Help me to hear your words and believe them: “Be strong and of good courage; do not be frighten, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Amen.
St Margaret, virgin, martyr, and dragon-slayer, pray for us!