Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
One thing we all know about St George is that he is supposed to have killed a dragon and in the process to have rescued a damsel in distress. Here’s an account of this event that I found on the website of a Russian Orthodox church.
A fierce dragon lived in a lake near Beirut, not far from the mountains of Lebanon. Emerging from the lake, the monster abducted many people and devoured them. The inhabitants of the city, who were idol-worshippers, armed themselves many times and battled the dragon, but the latter filled the air with the fumes of its poisonous breath, from which many people died.
Finally the people of Beirut came to their king and asked him for help. The king promised to find out the will of the gods. He turned to the idols, but the demons who lived inside these idols, wishing to destroy the people, incited the king to announce the following: every day the inhabitants of Beirut must draw lots and feed one of their children to the dragon.
And so it was that every day the people of Beirut drew lots and, dressing up one of their sons or daughters in their best clothes, would take them to the lake and leave them to be devoured by the dragon. When the king’s turn finally came, he was forced to give up his daughter too, although he wept and grieved for her, since she was his only child. So the princess was dressed up, and left at the usual place on the shores of the lake.
But at that moment, by God’s providence, which desired to save the inhabitants of Beirut from both physical and spiritual destruction, George, carrying a spear, rode up on his horse. The terrified princess begged him to leave, so that he would not perish, but when he learned of the dragon, George promised her that he would save her in the Lord’s name.
At that moment the terrible monster emerged from the lake and approached its victim. The princess screamed, while St. George, making the sign of the cross and brandishing his spear, rushed at the dragon, struck its throat with great force and pinned it to the ground. Then St. George ordered the princess to tie up the dragon with her sash and lead the now submissive monster into the city. Afterwards St. George killed the dragon with his sword in the middle of the town. Seeing such a miracle, all the inhabitants of the city came to believe in Christ, and 25,000 people were baptized.
Now, that’s quite a striking story but I doubt if many people are going to believe that those events – as described in that account – actually happened. It’s all a bit of a stretch, especially for us western sophisticates.
Unfortunately, George is one of those saints about whom we know very little with any certainty. In fact we know nothing with any certainty. He seems to have been brought up as a Christian and to have been a soldier in the army of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Now, Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians and George was martyred for failing to recant his faith – allegedly on 23rd April in the year 303.
Even these minimal facts may not be absolutely firm historically but let’s assume that there was someone called George and that he was a soldier and a martyr. That doesn’t seem to me an unreasonable assumption. There were plenty of martyrs around at the time and some of them would inevitably have been soldiers.
The Roman (and Christian) writer Tertullian said that the blood of the martyrs was/is the seed of the church. The world is always more complicated and ambiguous than we would like it to be but in general terms I think Tertullian was right.
It’s important to remember that the word ‘martyr’ originally meant ‘witness’ in Greek. The word acquired its modern meaning because those we now call martyrs witnessed with their lives to their faith in Christ.
It’s often said that Christianity is caught not taught. We can argue intellectually for the truth of the Christian faith till the cows come home. I think that Christianity has some really solid intellectual arguments on its side but arguments on their own aren’t persuasive for most people. They may be for some but not for the majority.
What people really want is to see that faith makes a difference, a real and deep difference in a person’s life. When you put your money where your mouth is, people take notice.
It’s often said, and it’s true, that courage isn’t the absence of fear. Someone who doesn’t know fear is mentally ill in some way. Courage is to know fear, real fear, and then to confront the cause of that fear head on.
Confronting physical danger is the most obvious example of courage. No doubt George felt fear when he saw martyrdom staring him in the face. No doubt he felt fear when, if that story’s remotely true, he came across that fearsome dragon.
But there are plenty of other varieties of courage. There’s standing up for what you believe in despite opposition and ridicule. There’s working without respite for justice and peace and seeming to get nowhere. There’s visiting someone in hospital when you hate hospitals. There’s building up relationships with others when you feel shy and lacking in confidence.
The list is endless. Every aspect of our lives – public and private – offers us the opportunity to act courageously rather than backing off in fear. As we all know, it’s so easy to turn aside and let fear triumph rather than love. So incredibly easy!
And yet we are called, like St George, to exercise courage.
It’s customary on St George’s Day to sing Jerusalem. As befits St George, it uses military imagery:
I will not cease from mental fight,
nor will my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.
It’s a hymn, a song, a poem about our country and the potential it has to become what the love of God wants it to be. But in the last analysis the national and the personal, the public and the private, are one. They form a single whole. We strive for love and justice and peace in every nook and cranny of existence. There may be many different varieties of courage – but there is only one Jerusalem.