A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba

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. Polycarp of Smyrna

Marcus Aurelius, the enlightened philosopher king who was emperor of Rome (r. 161-180), also engaged in the first systematic persecution of Christians.  According the video below, Polycarp was martyred during his reign.  If that is so, then Polycarp died in AD 167; the traditional date for Polycarp’s martyrdom is AD 155/156, putting him in the later years of Antoninus Pius, an emperor who had no systematic programme of dealing with Christians.  Whatever the case, Polycarp is one of the most famous of Christian martyrs, and if you have three minutes and twenty-one seconds, the little video (found it at www.polycarp.net) below does a better job of his life than I could:

Like St. Valentine, we see in Polycarp’s life great courage.  In our own lives, we will likely never face death or torture for what we believe to be good, true, just.  Yet we may still find ourselves in situations where our beliefs, from the large to the small, are ridiculed, derided, marginalised, ignored, attacked, and otherwise dealt with horribly.  It for us to take courage from the martyrs who faced much worse and to stand firm in our beliefs and be bold with them.