Monday, April 23, 2007

Victory—By George! A Soldier Saint With a Heck of a Legend

St. George, today's saint as well as the patron of soldiers, knights, archers and England, can rightly be called one of the most popular saints of all time. Honored throughout the East and West (even Islam tags him with the title of "prophet"), the facts about George are almost as scant as his devotion is widespread. Still, there's no reason to follow the lead of the Protestant reformers and throw the baby out with the bathwater—or, in George's case, the martyr out with the myth. But it's also not a bad idea to separate the legend from the reality.

George was an officer (and a highly respected one at that) in the Roman army at the turn of the fourth century. How George became a Christian is unclear, but the fact is by the time the persecution of the Church under the emperor Diocletian began in 303, George was already a committed "Roman" Catholic. A soldier of extraordinary courage, George saw no reason to renounce his faith even though this meant almost certain death. Instead, he gave all his earthly belongings to the poor and spiritually prepared for the inevitable. Refusing to sacrifice to the gods, George suffered terrible tortures, but none of these hardships (including a poisoning by the court magician, who was so struck by George's conviction, converted and was also martyred) could kill him. After a botched attempt of burning (the flames took a right turn when they approached George and headed instead for the pagan temple), George was beheaded and his death is listed anywhere between the years 303 and 307.

Now, the legend. In various accounts, George's torture lasted as long as seven years, while some stories had him raised from the dead three times, and George himself raising seventeen saints from the grave, a few who had been dead since the first century! Also in the legend, fire not only burned down the temple, but killed all the pagan priests, with a special fireball from heaven nailing the governor. And the description of the tortures themselves ... well, they make The Passion of the Christ film look like a picnic.

Although his tale was later exaggerated, George's valor was real. Cults were in place by the fifth century, when a monastery dedicated to him in Jerusalem (George was martyred nearby) and the call for his intercession by the Byzantine army were already going strong. If the legend of George continued to grow, so did his patronage—especially among the military. England, the country George is most associated with, was rather late to the fray, but after a vision of St. George was seen actually fighting the opposition in the Crusaders victory at Antioch in 1098, his English cult quickly spread. Wishing to stick with a winner, King Richard I (1159-99) officially placed the English army under George's protection, and in 1222 his feast became a national holiday in England. Finally, Edward III (circa 1350) introduced the "St. George for England" battle cry as well as the St. George classic red cross, white background shield still in use today. By the time of the reformation, over 160 English churches were dedicated to George and his feast was a holy day of obligation.

While it may be noted that after Vatican II, George's feast day was "downgraded" from "universal" to "national," it was by no means eliminated. George may not have slain dragons, but he did defeat the devil in his heroic martyrdom for Christ. It is not during extraordinary tortures but amidst everyday trials that we should turn to him, for in an intercession that stretches for centuries, George's help to Christians has withstood the test of time. So let us pray that the Anglican Church and its wayward Episcopal stepchild revive the St. George battle cry, that once again the Son will never set on a truly "United (and Catholic) Kingdom."

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