Saint of the Week: Saint George

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, Toronto

G.K. Chesterton once submitted an entry to a discussion about how St. George would feel were he to be dropped into modern England.  Most of the other entries talked about how vastly different England would be in their day than his, and how he would be shocked and surprised and feel totally out-of-place.  In true contrarian, Chestertonian fashion, G.K. submitted an entry that went counter to all of this and said how at-home St. George would feel in modern England, being a cosmopolitan man himself from the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity.

Chesterton has launched his readers out of the myth that surrounds St. George and realised that this is a real man who didn’t even live in England.  And whether there was a dragon or not, St. George is worth a look, worth not skipping over.

George was a soldier.  He is one of the very few ancient soldier-saints, along with St. Demetrius.  He lived from c. 275-303 under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284/5-311).  Diocletian was the last Emperor to engage in a systematic persecution of Christians.  Bishops and presbyters (“priests”, lit. “elders”) were asked to hand over the holy books — presumably Bibles, lectionaries, and liturgical books.  Christians w

ere forced to burn incense to the Genius of the Emperor to prove that they were true Romans and hadn’t violated the Pax Deorum.  Furthermore, all soldiers had to swear oaths of loyalty to the Emperor who was the Imperator — originally “General”, but now the sole general, the supreme commander of the armed forces of the Roman Empire.

He was not born a soldier, of course, but was nevertheless born into a family that included a soldier-father and both parents Christians.  When George was only fourteen years old, his father died, followed a few years later by his mother.  Young George decided to go to Nicomedia, which was then housing the Imperial court, and seek service in the guard of Diocletian.  Diocletian accepted George, having been acquainted with his father who man of great soldiering ability.  George would then have undergone all of the training requisite and necessary for a soldier and joined the household guard of the Emperor Diocletian.

St. George rose to the rank of tribune, and all was fine and dandy with his military career until 302.  In 302, Diocletian launched his Great Persecution.  Part of this persecution was the elimination of Christians from the army.  All of the soldiers were forced to sacrifice to the gods and the Christians were arrested.  George refused to make the commanded sacrifice and was thus arrested, having made a public declaration of his refusal and his Christian beliefs.

The Emperor Diocletian made many attempts to persuade George to make the sacrifice and surrender his Christian beliefs, but George was made of sterner stuff than that.  Following what was no doubt a very painful torture, St. George was executed by the Emperor Diocletian.  His torture seems to have included the wheel, and whipping, and other unpleasantnesses.

This is what we can know for certain.  The lesson runs no different and no deeper than those of Sts. Valentine, Polycarp, and other early martyrs.

St. George also has his mythical side, of which all are aware.  This is what drew me to St. George as a child — obsessed with knights and dragons, I remember reading a children’s book all about St. George and the Dragon.  In my wallet, I have an icon of St. George given to me by Michael, a Cypriot owner of a periptero (corner store).  I also have an icon pin of St. George on my jacket, given my by a guy on the bus one day here in Toronto.  Both of these icons have St. George mounted on his valiant steed impaling a dragon through the mouth with a spear.

To borrow a phrase from Emily, that which is mythical is “bigger than true”.  The literal, historical truth we have seen.  What of the bigger story?  St. George comes to a city where the spring was guarded by a dragon.  Every day, the citizens had to provide the dragon with a sheep to be able to draw water from the spring.  If they ran out of sheep, the dragon required a maiden.  Since the maidens were drawn by lots, inevitably the ruler’s daughter is selected.  St. George comes and saves her, slaying the dragon and converting the people to Christianity.

Some say that the snakes of Ireland driven out by St. Patrick symbolise the demons and old gods or the sins of the Irish people.  Perhaps that is what the myth shows us.  George comes as the valiant soldier of Christ, and he defeats the dragon — a traditional symbol of the Devil, as seen in the book of Revelation.  As a result of the death of the Devil or the old ways, the people are drawn to Christ.

Perhaps we are that city, beset by the dragon of sin and self-indulgence, and someone will come into our life as St. George to slay that dragon and set us free to worship Christ.

Saint of the Week: St. Valentine

This past Sunday was Valentine’s Day.  So it is only appropriate that we commemorate Valentine as our saint this week.  The St. Valentine of choice this week is he who died in AD 270.

He was a martyr during the reign of the Emperor Quintillus (I think; my history books aren’t at hand to confirm Quintillus’ brief reign).  During the third century, Christians underwent persecution on and off.  Some emperors persecuted them heartily, others did little more than seize holy books and disallow gatherings for worship.  The sporadic nature of Roman persecution of Christians was also such that the Christians were not usually persecuted universally but only in certain places and only at certain times and only for certain offenses.

These persecutions were sometimes because foreign, non-traditional, non-ethnic religious groups were an easy scapegoat (see Nero’s persecution in the 60’s).  Sometimes they were because the Christians refused to burn incense to the emperor, claiming that since the emperor is but a man, he ought not to receive worship as a god.  Another cause of persecution is the deep-rooted Roman belief in the pax deorum — the peace of the gods.  Rome was successful because of divine favour.  Not to worship or believe in the gods was to court disaster for the Roman people.  Therefore, to prevent disaster, or to stop it (as in times of crisis such as the third century), those who did not worship the gods — “atheists” — were rooted out.

Valentine was a priest in Rome during a persecution.  It is my understanding that he was brought before the magistrate and required to recant his Christian beliefs (a fairly simple action, “Recanto.”).  He refused.  He was commanded so to do multiple times, but held firm to his faith until the end.  Since he refused to recant, he was then beaten with clubs, dragged through the City, and beheaded.

Why on earth do we go out on dates and give loved ones heart-shaped cards and chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day?  It may be the leftovers of the Lupercalia, observed on February 15.  I don’t see how a festival that consisted of men running about naked and hitting people with leather thongs, animal sacrifices, and religious solemnities becomes Valentine’s Day.  It may simply be a rootless sort of “Spring thing”, since everyone is twitterpated in the Spring.

As far as Valentine is concerned, the legend (tradition?) is that he was forbidden to perform Christian marriages but refused, and kept on getting people married, so they killed him.

Although we are uncertain of all the details of his life, he was real.  Remember that we are also uncertain about Quintillus’ life and reign.  Times of upheaval and uncertainty make for incomplete, disjointed, and occasionally contradictory records.  As well, since St. Valentine was but one of many martyrs (more than one of whom was named Valentine), and not as famous as some, we find ourselves unsure of many details.

The lesson from his life?  To stand firm in the face of persecution.  If you do so, you might have a popular holiday named after you.