(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. George, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Victor Hugo defined popularity as glory’s small change, but in the case of the enormously popular St. George it is more a matter of being shortchanged, ironically enough, by those admirers over the years after his martyrdom who tried to outdo one another in their accounts of his heroism. There have been so many myths about this great soul that it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, all to the grievous detriment of this mighty saint. There is so much legend attached to his holy name that there are Christians who have in exasperation dismissed him as the product of some storyteller’s imagination which somehow got into the record of saints and has been allowed to cling there out of sentiment, if nothing else.
It is a matter of accurate record, however, that St. George was an actual human being, and that he lived during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the third century and partially into the fourth. He was by far Syria’s most noble saint, a Christian warrior who captured the imagination of so many Christians that he was overly venerated. Since everyone loves a brave military man to begin with, if that glamorous soldier’s image is enhanced by a strong Christian faith, then he is apt to be so blown up in legend as to explode into incredulity.
Before he became the “Victorious Great Martyr,” St. George served in the legions of Rome, making a reputation for himself as a fearless officer and highly respected leader of men, thus laying the groundwork for a later adulation that was to cloud his holy spirit and proximity to God. The hero worshipers had a tendency to forget that his commitment to Jesus Christ, and not his heroic character, made him a venerated saint of the Christian Church. His biographers, of whom there have been many in the Church, have winced at some of the grossly exaggerated accounts of his exploits and have been forced to wade through a sea of fantasy before arriving at the shore of truth about him. But as someone said, there can be no real beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.
Legend piled upon legend over the years so that when the Crusades were launched from England, the hero-loving crusaders returned from the Holy Land with some well-magnified stories about St. George, whom they took to their bosoms with genuine admiration and affection.
The ironic humor of G.K. Chesterton epitomized the skepticism in a poem which reads:
St. George he was from England,
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of a flagon.
The facts are that St. George was Syrian to the core, and resigned his commission in the Roman army rather than participate in any of the pagan rituals expected of the soldiers. He also resented the merciless persecution of the Christians, whose ranks he joined in a total commitment to Jesus Christ. The fight he put up for Christianity was to prove his undoing, and the terrible retribution on the part of the tyrant Diocletian was all the more intense against the man whom he considered a traitor for having gone over to the side of decency.
There are many accounts of the manner in which St. George died for Christ, but it is certain that he was put through unspeakable tortures which he bravely endured before finally being beheaded in Nikomedia, a town in Asia Minor on an inlet of the Sea of Marmara. His courage gave heart to the many converts for whom he was responsible and his defiant spirit lingered on to inspire the Christians to greater effort on behalf of the Savior, despite the great danger involved.
The Emperor Constantine, some years later, erected the Church of St. George in his memory, setting a precedent for the parade of churches which were to be erected in his memory in the years to come. St. George symbolizes the struggle against paganism and the never-ending combat between good and evil, one of the “Sons of Light” who wages an unending combat against the “Dragon of Darkness.” In the roster of soldiers who have become Christian saints, the name of St. George leads all the rest.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.