St. George: Linking Legend with Historical Lessons

Revelation 12:9-11, Job 41:1-5, Isaiah 43:9-21, Isaiah 27:1

The stories concerning St. George are both a delight and a complication in the Orthodox tradition. For those of a practical mindset, a story that involves a princess, ravenous dragon and the knight who tames the beast smacks of legend. What is it doing among the more sober accounts of a soldier-saint who was bold to speak the truth in a hostile environment, who died a martyr’s death, and who emboldened many others in the late third century world of Asia Minor and Rome, including the wife of Emperor Diocletian?

Our liturgical music proclaims these aspects of his story without embarrassment:

As one valiant in martyrdom, * trophy-bearer, Great Martyr George, * on this day we gather to chant thee hymns of praise; * for thou hast finished the course and hast invincibly kept the Faith, * and from God thou hast received * thy great victory’s crown of light; * hence entreat the Lord * to deliver from perils and corruption them that faithfully do honor * thine ever-venerable memory.

As the Saviour’s co-sufferer, * thou didst willingly imitate * His death by thine own death; and now in majesty * with Him thou reignest, endued with the most radiant purple robe * wrought of thine own sacred blood, * and adorned with the scepter of * thy martyric deeds; * and the crown of thy triumphs doth enhance thee unto ages everlasting, * O thou all-lauded Great Martyr George.

St. George, then, is the trophy-bearer, or victory-bearer, because of his steadfastness in obeying God, rather than idolatrous man. To a scoffing pagan judge who asked, “What is Truth?” Holy George proclaimed Jesus Christ himself as the Living Truth—not simply a religious system or a philosophy. This aspect of his story assures us that the saint knew the Lord intimately, and that his resolve not to capitulate was based not only on principle, but on inner knowledge, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. He bears the victory because he bore suffering along with Jesus. We may be reminded of the great declaration that is made in heaven concerning how Satan is vanquished:

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (or martyrdom), for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev 12:10-11 RSV)

Satan is conquered by “the blood of the Lamb” and by the word of the martyrs, who follow the Lamb wherever he goes—even to death! Of these, St. George is a primary early example.

The many stories told of this martyr remind us of the Maccabean brothers, who suffered many tortures for the true God, of the triumph of the apostles over the sorcerer Simon Magus in Acts, and of the casting down of the idol by Daniel in the extended story about Daniel, Bel and the Dragon. Associated with this great man is the resolve of the Maccabees, the spiritual prowess of the apostles, and the wisdom of the great prophet Daniel. Especially comical is the way in which he challenges the Emperor’s idol, so that the demon inhabiting it speaks back, and finally the idol crumbles, falling off its pedestal. St. George is a champion for truth, in all these stories!

But what do we do with the stories of a lake near Mount Lebanon with its resident equivalent to the Loch Ness monster (or, for Okanagan Canadians, its OgoPogo?) And what do we do with reports that this dragon does not simply lurk, making chance appearances, but breathed fire, ate sheep and devoured children—including a claim on the king’s daughter? And what about St. George’s not-quite-fatal wounding of the predator, his use of the princess’s sash as a leash, and his triumphant parading of the beast, like a tamed dog, into the city? Or the final dispatching of the beast and the consequent conversion of the once-besieged city’s inhabitants?

The Celt in me (for we tend to be a bit “feye,” or fanciful) would like to imagine that there was a time when dragons were literally vanquished on the green earth—but the third century AD seems far too recent and replete with history to provide space for such legendary excitement. It would seem that this story, among many of the (sometimes comic) embellishments of the St. George sequences, signal to us that the meaning lies elsewhere than literal historical reportage. Children and adults smile, for example, at the prospect of a former fire-breather led like a puppy into the village. And those looking for justice applaud when the beast is finally destroyed, never to bother the newly converted again!

For, after all, we know that there IS a great Dragon, though he is not usually seen in his true God-defying identity. And the time will come when he will not be an “is,” but a “has-been”—in fact, that day has already begun. For the same chapter of Revelation that we have just seen identifies him for us: “the great dragon… that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) with his perverse “angels.” St. George’s story, then, is a picturesque mirror of the great story of triumph, the story of our God and King. The prophet Isaiah, whom we read for St. George’s day, speaks of God’s conquest over all that is at enmity with God:

Let all the nations gather together, and let the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to justify them, and let them hear and say, It is true. “You are my witnesses,” says the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” says the LORD. “I am God, and also henceforth I am He; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can hinder it?” Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentations. I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.” Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.” (Isa 43:9-21)

At the Red Sea, then again at Jordan, the LORD showed his mighty arm, the godless horse and rider were thrown into the sea, the waters were parted! Similarly, the LORD broke the power of the mighty emperor of Babylon, and made a way “through mighty waters” for his people to return to Jerusalem. He is the one who does a NEW thing, to whom all the wild beasts—including terrorizing dragons—must bow. As the LORD asks Job, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak to you soft words?…Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on leash for your maidens? (Job 41:1-5 RSV)

God is implying, of course, that this is precisely what He can, and WILL do with Satan. As the prophet Isaiah says elsewhere: “In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea (Isa 27:1).”

We have, of course, seen that dawn of the day, though sometimes the enemy tries to disturb God’s people, as he fights, in his death-throes, to bring down as many as he can with him. For the time of salvation has come in our mighty Lord, who trampled down death by death, and who robbed Hades of his prey. We proclaim the triumph of Jesus and his reclamation of our world when the priest uses water on Holy Friday: it helps to remember that water, and the chaos of the sea, were understood traditionally to be the habitation of the Devil. Now, however, the waters and the whole earth have been purified by the deep visitation of the Incarnate God, which we remember both at Theophany and at every baptism:

Do you yourself, O Loving King, be present now also through the descent of your Holy Spirit and hallow this water. And give to it the Grace of Redemption, the Blessing of Jordan. Make it a fountain of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a loosing of sins, a healing of sicknesses, a destruction of demons, unapproachable by hostile powers, filled with angelic might; and let them that take counsel together against Your creature flee there from, for I have called upon Your Name, O Lord, which is wonderful, and glorious, and terrible unto adversaries….Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the signing of your most precious cross. Lord, we pray you, let every airy and invisible specter withdraw itself from us, and let not a demon of darkness conceal himself in this water; neither let an evil spirit, bringing obscurity of purpose and rebellious thoughts, descend into it with him (her) that is about to be baptized. But do You, O Master of All, declare this water to be water of redemption, water of sanctification, a cleansing of flesh and spirit, a loosing of bonds, a forgiveness of sins, an illumination of soul, a laver of regeneration, a renewal of the spirit, a gift of sonship, a garment of incorruption, a fountain of life.

The picture of St. George, wounding the dragon, and leading it tamely into the city, but finally vanquishing it forever, speaks to our own state: the Enemy of God has sustained a death-wound and cannot prosper where Jesus’ name is honored. The saint’s legend leads us to see the deeper truth, which is beyond this world but also deeply affects it. And, we await the final judgment, the time when that accuser will be completely removed from our scene, and when there will be new heavens and new earth, and all the former sorrows will be gone! Until that time, we have the bold witness of martyrs like Saint George, who was indeed connected with our space-time world in history, to encourage us, and to give us hope.
Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

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