3rd – Gregory the Great c 540 – 604
Pope Gregory never called himself ‘the Great’, but instead ‘the Servant of the Servants of God’. Nevertheless, Gregory was one of the most important popes and influential writers of the Middle Ages. The son of a very rich Roman senator, he left the service of the State upon his conversion as a young man. Gregory then sold off his tremendous estates to found six monasteries in Sicily and a seventh in Rome, and gave generously to the poor. He became a monk and adopted an austere lifestyle. But he was destined to be a frustrated monk, because successive popes kept appointing him to jobs with major public responsibilities.
Christians in England owe him a great deal. When Gregory came across some English slaves for sale in Rome, he asked who they were, and was told, ‘They are Angles.’ Moved with compassion for these humiliated and despised men, he replied, ‘They are not Angles, but angels!” He wanted to lead a band of missionaries to England to evangelise the Angles, but then plague broke out in Italy, and during this time he was elected Pope.
Reluctantly he accepted, and then sent to work to deal with the crises facing Christendom: plague, floods, famine, and a Lombard invasion. But busy though Gregory was, he did not forget the Angles. He sent Augustine to England, and so indirectly became the apostle of the English.
11th – Deiniol (d. c.584)
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is not the first mighty bishop to come out of Wales. Deiniol was a monk of Wales who came to be the ‘first bishop of Bangor’. And a mighty bishop he was, too: Deiniol founded the two monasteries of Bangor Fawr (on the Menai Straits) and Bangor Iscoed (Clwyd), which, according to Bede, became the most famous monastery of British Christianity and came to number over 2,000 monks. Sadly, they were defeated at the battle of Chester by the pagan Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria. Deiniol is also remembered for his skill in getting disagreeing bishops to come and talk things over at a Synod… surely a skill which his 21st century successor has had to put to great use!
14th – Holy Cross Day
On Holy Cross Day the Church celebrates the Cross as a symbol of triumph, as the sign of Christ’s victory over death. Holy Cross Day goes right back to 14 September 335, and we have the mother of a Roman Emperor to thank for it.
Helena was a devout Christian, and after her son, Constantine, was converted, they agreed that she should travel from Rome to Israel, and seek out the places of special significance to Christians.
Of course, much of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans around 135 AD. But even so, Helena finally located what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and of the Burial (and modern archaeologists think she may well be correct). The sites were so close together that she built one large church over them – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
That church, built in honour of the Cross, was dedicated on 14 September 335.
The sign of the Cross has been used by Christians since early times. Tertullian, writing his De Corona (3:2) around AD 211, noted that that Christians seldom did
anything significant without making the sign of the cross.
What is its significance? Well, people often put their initials or some sort of personal mark on something to show that it belongs to them. The Cross is the personal mark of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we mark it on ourselves as a sign that we belong to him. Even in the book of Revelation, we read that the servants of God are ‘sealed’ or ‘marked’ on their foreheads as a sign that they are his.
A preacher once put it this way: if you were explaining to someone how to make a cross, you would say: “Draw an I.” That is you standing before the Lord, saying, ‘here I am’. Then cancel that vertical stroke with a horizontal stroke – as if to say: “Lord, I abandon my self-will and make you the centre of my life instead. I abandon myself to your love and service.”
On Holy Cross Day, we recall Jesus’ wonderful promise: “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:32)
21st St Matthew
Matthew was one of 12 apostles. But he began as a publican i.e. a tax-collector of Jewish race who worked for the Romans, before he left all at the call of Christ. From earliest times, he was regarded as the author of the first of the four Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew is in correct, concise style, very suitable for public reading.
His usual emblem as an evangelist is a man, because his genealogy emphasised the family ties of Christ.
In art, he has been represented as either an evangelist or as an apostle. As an evangelist, he has been depicted sitting at a desk, writing his gospel with an angel holding the inkwell. In the Middle Ages he was even given a pair of spectacles.
Matthew was martyred by a sword or a spear, some think in Ethiopia.
29th – St Michael and All Angels
Michael is an archangel, whose name means ‘who is like unto God?’ He makes various appearances throughout the Bible, from the book of Daniel to the Book of Revelation. In Daniel, he is ‘one of the princes’ of the heavenly host, and the special guardian of Israel. In Revelation, he is the principal fighter of the heavenly battle against the devil.
From early times, Michael’s cult was strong in the British Isles. Churches at Malmesbury (Wiltshire) , Clive (Gloucestershire) and Stanmer (East Sussex) were dedicated to him. Bede mentions him. St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall was believed to commemorate a vision there in the 8th century. By the end of the Middle Ages, Michael had 686 English churches dedicated to him.
In art Michael is often depicted as slaying the dragon, as in the 14th century East Anglican Psalters, or in Epstein’s famous sculpture at Coventry cathedral. Or he is found (in medieval art) as weighing souls, as at Chaldon (Surrey), Swalcliffe (Oxon.), Eaton Bishop (Hereford and Worcester), and Martham in Suffolk. Michael’s most famous shrine in western Europe is Mont-Saint-Michel, where a Benedictine abbey was founded in the 10th century.
The ‘All Angels’ bit of this feast-day was added in 1969 when Gabriel and Raphael were included in with Michael.