Today is the feast day of Saint George. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. George, one of the most renowned martyrs of our church, whom the Greeks call the Great Martyr, was a native of Cappadocia, and the son of illustrious Christian parents. His courage and his uncommon bodily strength made him adopt the profession of a soldier. His undaunted bravery soon caused him to be advanced to the rank of commander in the army of the Emperor Diocletian, by whom he was greatly esteemed on account of his valor. The emperor was ignorant that St. George was a Christian, until the following occurrence took place. Diocletian, a bitter enemy of the Christians, one day assembled all his counsellors, and announced to them that in order to preserve their religion he had determined to exterminate all the Christians in his dominions, but desired their opinion upon the subject. One after another, the counsellors approved and praised this plan of the emperor. George alone disapproved of it, and said boldly, that he could not understand by what right they would exterminate the Christians, as their religion and teachings were full of wisdom, their commandments holy, and their conduct blameless. All present were astounded at this speech, and began to suspect that he himself was a Christian. They represented, therefore, to him on the one side, the favor of the emperor and the great consideration which he enjoyed, the riches and honors he already possessed, as well as the still greater that were in store for him; on the other hand, the disgrace in which he would be held by the emperor, the loss of all his riches and honors, as well as the cruel tortures that he would incur, perhaps even an ignominious death, in case he disagreed with the other counsellors, or if he was a Christian and did hot abandon his faith. They added much concerning the greatness and power of their gods, the errors of the Christian faith, and even refrained not from attacking its Divine founder.
All this, of course, was done to fill St. George with disgust toward the Christian religion, and to induce him to worship their idols. He listened during some time in silence; but when they spoke contemptuously of Christianity, and defamed the Son of God, he no longer kept silence, but with the magnanimity of a fearless spirit: “I am a Christian!” cried he “I worship the only true God, whose service, neither fear of the anger of a mortal man, nor the loss of my earthly possessions, can cause me to abandon. I shall consider it my highest honor to be permitted to shed my blood,in the defence of His holy Name. That you speak so irreverently of Christianity and its Founder is only to be ascribed to your ignorance. If you were better instructed you would speak differently.” Then turning to the emperor he said, “Oh! how much would it redound to the advantage of your Majesty if you would worship with me the God of the Christians! The kingdom He would give you in the other world would be incomparably greater than that which you now possess.”
It is impossible to describe the wrath of the emperor on hearing so unexpected a confession. He immediately ordered that the valiant confessor of Christ should be fettered with heavy chains and be thrown into a dark dungeon. The following day he was bound to a wheel which was set with sharply pointed irons, and was rolled up and down on it so long that his whole body seemed to be one great wound. During this dreadful torture, which the Christian hero cheerfully endured, appearing almost insensible to pain, a voice from heaven was distinctly heard, saying: “Fear not, for I am with thee; combat bravely.” After the torture, St. George was dragged again into the dungeon, where he thanked God for the strength vouchsafed to him, admonished all Christians who came to see him to be constant in their faith, and healed several sick persons by making the sign of the cross over them. The Almighty sent an angel to him who cured his wounds and exhorted him to remain faithful. When, the next morning, he was brought before the emperor, the latter ascribed the complete restoration of the Saint to witchcraft, and again tried to persuade him to the worship of the idols. The Saint desired to see the idols he was requested to adore. The emperor, thinking that his eloquence had prevailed over the constancy of the Saint, led him, accompanied by the empress, and followed by all the counsellors, into the temple of an idol. The Saint, after having looked around for one moment, placed himself before a statue of Apollo, and asked: “Is it thou who demanded of me the sacrifice which is due only to the true God of heaven and earth?” Having said this, he made the sign of the holy cross towards the image, when the devil, who was hidden in it, cried, with dreadful roaring: “No! no! I am no God. There is no other God than He whom thou dost worship.” “How dare you then, remain in my presence?” said St. George; and hardly had the words passed his lips, when, amid a terrible howling and lamenting all the idols fell down from their altars and burst into a thousand pieces. The idolatrous priest beholding this, uttered loud cries demanding vengence, and the emperor, foaming with rage, commanded them to torture the magician (thus he called St. George) in the most unheard-of manner.
It is the opinion of many that St. George was the first who fell a victim to the fury of Diocletian against the Christians, and that in order to frighten others he gave full sway to his cruelty in torturing the Saint. At last, however, convinced that he could effect nothing with the Saint, he ordered that the invincible follower of Christ should be decapitated. The Empress Alexandra was led to execution at the same time. She had secretly embraced Christianity some time before, but not until she was witness of the above described scene in the temple, had she the courage to confess openly that she also adored the God of the Christians. Many others were converted at the same time, who afterwards sealed with their blood the truth of their faith.
While proceeding with a joyful heart to the place of execution, the empress prayed unceasingly, raising her eyes to heaven. Having arrived there, St. George knelt down, and after thanking God that he had been a Christian from his infancy and had been strengthened to remain so until his end, he prayed most fervently that the Almighty might have compassion on the heathens, that light might be given to them, and that they might all be brought to the knowledge of the true faith. After this he fearlessly offered his head and received the death stroke from the hands of the executioner.
St. George is generally represented as delivering a maiden from a dragon, or slaying one of those animals in combat. This is intended to denote that he valiantly overcame the dragon of hell, which desired to devour the woman represented in the Apocalypse–the Christian Church, the virgin bride of Christ. Others maintain that the dragon represents heathendom, out of whose jaws St. George rescued the Empress Alexandra, who, incited by his intrepid confession, also declared her faith and received the crown of martyrdom. She was executed on the same day as the Saint. (2)
by Dom Gueranger, 1897
Clad in his bright coat of mail, mounted on his warsteed, and spearing the dragon with his lance,–George, the intrepid champion of our Risen Jesus, comes gladdening us today with his Feast. From the East,–where he is known as The great Martyr,–devotion to St. George soon spread in the Western Church, and our Christian Armies have always loved and honored him as one of their dearest Patrons. His martyrdom took place in Paschal Time; and thus, he stands before us as the Guardian of the glorious Sepulcher, just as Stephen, the Protomartyr, watches near the Crib of the Infant God.
Devotion to St. George dates from a very early period. St. Gregory of Tours gives us several proofs of its having taken root in Gaul. St. Clotilde had a singular confidence to the holy Martyr, and dedicated to him the Church of her dear Abbey of Chelles. But this devotion became more general and more fervent during the Crusades, when the Christian armies witnessed the veneration in which St. George was held by the Eastern Church, and heard the wonderful things that were told of his protection on the field of battle. The Byzantine historians have recorded several remarkable instances of the kind; and the Crusaders returned to their respective countries publishing their own experience of the victories gained through the Saint’s intercession. The Republic of Genoa chose him for its Patron; and Venice honored him as its special Protector, after St. Mark. But nowhere was St. George so enthusiastically loved as in England. Not only was it decreed in a Council held at Oxford, in the year 1222, that the Feast of the Great Martyr should be observed as one of Obligation; not only was devotion to the valiant Soldier of Christ encouraged, throughout Great Britain, by the first Norman Kings;–but there are documents anterior to the invasion of William the Conqueror, which prove that St. George was invoked as the special Patron of England even so far back as the 9th century. Edward III. did but express the sentiment of the country when he put the Order of the Garter, which he instituted in 1330, under the patronage of the Warrior Saint. In Germany, King Frederic III. founded the Order of St. George in the year 1468. (2)
George’s popularity spread to Europe as a result of the Crusades. The Synod of Oxford 1222 declared St. George’s Day a feast day in the kingdom of England. His apparition to the Franks at the siege of Antioch 1098 is said to have greatly encouraged them, and he made a similar appearance the following year at Jerusalem. Military orders of St George were established in Aragon (1201), Genoa, Hungary, and by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III. Portugal, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Belgium, Georgia and Russia are other countries which have devotion to St George and where he appears in images, icons and statuary.
King Edward III of England (1327-77) founded his knighthood of chivalry, known as the Order of the Garter, under the banner of St. George. Many churches were dedicated to him in England and though his popularity may have lessened with the severe curtailment of saints days in the calendar during the Reformation, St George’s Day continued to be observed. His veneration as protector of England was approved by Pope Benedict XIV (Prospero Lambertini 1740-58). (5)
Image: Heiliger Georg, artist: Hans von Kulmbach, circa 1510
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff