I live in a time and a country where many Christians take their faith for granted. If it hadn’t been for brave souls such as St. George throughout history, however, despots might have destroyed that faith.
When I was a child, my parents had a small print in their study of Saint George slaying a dragon whose tail wrapped around the edges of the print. In deep blues and greens, the print hung on a corner wall near my parents’ dictionary stand and our set of World Book encyclopedias. I knew, of course, that St. George was the stuff of British folklore and no more real than Robin Hood. I was wrong.
The real St. George, depicted above in this bronze sculpture by early Renaissance artist Donatello, lived in the fourth century after Christ. He was born in Turkey to Christian parents. When his father died, he and his mother moved to her ancestral home in Palestine. When he was 17, George joined the Roman army and became known for his bravery.
He served under pagan Emperor Diocletian. For much of his reign, Diocletian allowed Christians to prosper. When the Emporer started persecuting Christians, however, George protested. But in 302, edicts were issued to suppress Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
George was imprisoned and tortured. He did not back down. He stayed true to his beliefs and for this, he was beheaded in Palestine on April 23, 303. The Church of St. George in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, contains his tomb. The church is an Eastern Orthodox Shrine. The Greek Orthodox Church calls George “the Great Martyr” and his feast day is a Holy Day of Obligation. Most interestingly, many Muslims venerate Saint George as well.
The year George was martyred, 303, began the “Great Persecution,” against Christians. Diocletian issued a series of decrees to force Christians to pledge allegiance to an imperial cult. An edict was issued “to tear down the churches to the foundations and to destroy the Sacred Scriptures by fire; and commanding also that those who were in honourable stations should be degraded if they persevered in their adherence to Christianity.” Can you imagine living under such conditions? Do you think you would be bold enough to risk your life for your faith?
It got worse. “Three further edicts (303-304) marked successive stages in the severity of the persecution: the first ordering that the bishops, presbyters, and deacons should be imprisoned; the second that they should be tortured and compelled by every means to sacrifice; the third including the laity as well as the clergy. The atrocious cruelty with which these edicts were enforced, and the vast numbers of those who suffered for the Faith are attested by Eusebius and the Acts of the Martyrs.”
About 10 years after George’s death, the Christian emperor Constantine came to power and George, along with other martyrs, was revered as a saint. From there, legend about St. George developed. During the First Crusades, the story was he slayed a dragon. At that time, dragons symbolized the Devil. George is said to have appeared to the crusading armies at the Battle of Dorylaeum, in 1097, and the Siege of Antioch, in 1198. Both were great crusading victories, and so St George came to be seen as a protector of Christian soldiery.
Saint George, who is the patron saint of England, found his way into British literature. He is mentioned in Spencer’s Faerie Queene, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.
I do love good stories, and the ones about George are fanciful and fun. But they also do a grave injustice to this saint who, after all, was an ordinary man of faith living in a tumultuous times. The real story of St. George is powerful without embellishment: Once upon a time, George, a brave Roman soldier, endured torture and death so generations to come might be blessed with the gift of Christian faith.
O God, who didst grant to Saint George strength and constancy in the various torments which he sustained for our holy faith; we beseech Thee to preserve, through his intercession, our faith from wavering and doubt, so that we may serve Thee with a sincere heart faithfully unto death. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.