Holy Cross vs Battle of Britain

The power of myths and the awful truth about what really gets our attention

Next week, there are two opportunities to celebrate and consider, to remember and rejoice. Which do we choose?

Option One: Holy Cross Day

On 14th September, the Church celebrates Holy Cross Day. Well, some churches do. Granted, it’s up there with Michaelmas and All Saints Day as ‘mostly overlooked’, these so-called Feast Days not lending themselves to baked goods. One can’t help but see an opportunity on Holy Cross Day for bakers to flog hot cross buns thrown in the freezer once Easter has run its course.

Wait, what is Holy Cross Day?

This day was assigned to the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built in 335 AD. Church tradition has it that nine years earlier on that site, the True Cross had been discovered by the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Saint Helena, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Three parts of that cross were distributed to three different locations and right there we have the next Lara Croft or Indiana Jones story.

You can sense that I’m a little sceptical about the foundation of this myth. It seems unlikely the very cross on which Jesus was crucified had been lying around for three hundred years waiting to be discovered by a member of the royal elite.

But as a believer in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (see previous post), I have no objection to taking time to consider the cross of Christ. The Cross is emblazoned all over our heraldic symbols, flags and brands. Almost every parish church is built in the shape of a cross. It would be healthy thing to reflect on this as a nation, as well as a Church.

However, Holy Cross Day will pass by mostly unnoticed, even by Christians. So maybe, the day after, we will consider another national holy day.

Option Two: Battle of Britain Day

Battle of Britain Day is celebrated on 15th September. Normally we turn up the celebrations when there’s a ‘0’ or the number of years elapsed is divisible by 25. In this case, it will be 81 years since the Luftwaffe launched its largest attack on London, bringing the long-running Battle of Britain to a head. In an aerial conflict involving 1,500 aircraft, the Royal Air Force prevented the Luftwaffe inflicting severe damage on the city of London. The result was Hitler’s postponement of the invasion of Britain known as Operation Sea Lion.

The daylights raids were over. The battle for air supremacy had been won by Britain. But then the Luftwaffe began a relentless night bombing campaign, the Blitz, designed to sap Britain’s appetite for the fight, which lasted until May 1941. In terms of morale, it had the opposite effect, galvanising a hitherto ambivalent public against Germany.

Those events, unlike those concerning the Holy Cross, are within living memory. And true. But they are also myths. The Battle of Britain has certainly fed the narrative of Britain being at its best with its back to the wall. We love a plucky underdog. The image of the young fighter pilot climbing into his Spitfire to stave off the mighty Luftwaffe is intoxicating.

Somehow in this story, the underdog is also the mighty Imperial sovereign nation of Great Britain, one of the world’s few superpowers at the time. As is often the case, the myth isn’t untrue. It’s just there are numerous sins of omission.

Quick Rant For Those Who Are Interested

Did the RAF save the British from a successful German invasion? No.

I’ve read enough books and listened to enough podcasts (most notably the excellent We Have Ways podcast) to be confident that a German seaborne invasion would have been an utter disaster for them.

The German Army (the Wehrmacht) were completely unprepared for an amphibious attack, not least because they hadn’t expected to defeat France so swiftly. Their supply lines had already been stretched to the limit contributing to hundreds of thousands of allied troops being able to escape capture at Dunkirk. This also meant that three hundred thousand Allied troops were here in England, waiting to repel an invasion.

The allies took over two years to plan D-Day and even then, success was not certain. So, a German invasion in 1940, thrown together in weeks, was never really coming. There is no chance that Germany could have crossed the English Channel or North Sea in whatever vessels they could find. They would have been utterly destroyed by the Royal Navy, the largest and most experienced Navy in the world (maintained by us plucky underdogs). And the Luftwaffe were always going to struggle to dominate the air, because our air defence system had been carefully planned in advance. And the plan worked. They do that sometimes.

Perhaps the sabre-rattling and threats were intended to encourage Britain to negotiate or make peace so Germany could attack eastwards, which had been their intention from the beginning.

The plucky British (and Polish) underdog is a beguiling narrative, isn’t it? Like all good myths, it’s inspiring and mostly true. Those pilots were young and incredibly brave. But it’s not the whole truth.

Is this a day worthy of remembrance? Certainly. But is it qualitatively different from Holy Cross Day? And is either so bad given we’ve never needed uniting and inspiring myths more than right now?

Can we celebrate both days? We can. But we won’t.

Option 3: The Depressing Reality

Recently, a festival was announced that will hoover up more attention than anything else that week. 14th September is an Apple Day. This is a day that Mac fans celebrate at least twice a year. All kinds of tactics are employed to predict the date ahead of time. Online runes are deciphered and tea leaves read to work out what products will be launched.

On that day, hundreds of thousands across the world will hang on every word of Tim Cook, the great High Priest. He will explain the features of the new iPhone and how we can hand over more of our money and information, so that we can enjoy the reassuring glow of a screen on which we can endlessly scroll and scroll and scroll whilst claiming we’re staying connected to our friends.

Roll on Michaelmas Day! What? You don’t know about St Michael killing the dragon? That’s not a myth. But it is one for later in the month.