Soldier Saints: St. George
Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.
Today's featured Soldier Saint is St. George.
George is known the world over as a Christian knight who slayed a dragon. As the story is told, a terrible dragon was terrorizing the city of Sylene, in the modern North African nation of Libya.
In exchange for relative calm, the townspeople were offering a sacrifice to the beast at its demand. As George galloped into town, the latest victim would be a beautiful but helpless princess. Rushing in for rescue, George suppressed the dragon and eventually slayed it in the town after all the inhabitants promised to be baptized.
This story had tremendous appeal during the medieval period, amidst all the chivalric forms of Christianity (and imperial powers) that ruled that age. It is little surprise to learn that George was and is the patron of soldiers and knights. He is also patron saint of England, itself once a vast empire.
The knightly stuff seems less relevant to us; like dragon tales, few knights in armor on horses remain in existence today. Besides, George lived and died long before the time of knights. Soldiers, however, still exist in abundance, and George’s relevancy to them lies in a tale not so tall.
Some stories hold that George was born into a wealthy family, which would explain his association later with knights and noblemen. He even refers to himself as “a gentleman, a knight of Cappadocia.” However, he “left all for to serve the God of heaven;” he gave away all of his worldly wealth before appearing before the “dragon” of the imperial governors (as some legends have it, Diocletian himself). (1)
The story of the dragon has been thoroughly debunked as embellishment dating to the Middle Ages, when tales of dragons and damsels in distress were more in vogue. (2) Many accounts of George’s martyrdom exist, but the dragon appears only in those dated after the twelfth century.
The dragon George slays may only have been as real as the dragon John saw in his vision in the book of Revelation. The dragon is a powerful metaphor, a symbol used to point to something else.
The earliest depictions of the dragon seem to symbolize Roman governors, who insisted George confess Apollo, god of the sun, as “Lord and Savior of All.” Other writers level their pens at Diocletian more personally, as the emperor under whom George would have been serving at the time of his death in 303.
Different hagiographies point to other things that the dragon might represent, such as paganism, or the devil. Or perhaps the sins of pride and arrogance. It is clear the ferocious dragon had tremendous power over people, much like the power that nations, states, and empires have and continue to wield.
We know that George was raised by his Palestinian Christian mother and became a soldier in the imperial army. He was martyred near Nicomedia, the eastern Roman capital ruled by Diocletian.
George is said to have been tortured many times for criticizing the emperor, (3) each time being resuscitated in order to endure another round of increasingly inventive ways of inflicting extreme pain. In no particular order, he is lacerated by a wheel of swords, consumed by fire, beheaded, chopped into small pieces, and finally buried at different parts of the city. Take your pick of which death he suffered was worst.
At any rate, George was killed by the powers that be, even though a few mighty powers claim him as their patron, including England, Portugal, and Germany. Funny how soldiers themselves seem to get in the way of the glamorous tales we insist their lives tell.
God of all kingdoms and nations, we give thanks for George, the heroic soldier and defender of your faith, who dared to criticize a tyrannical emperor and was subjected to horrible cruelty. May he be for all time a witness against torture and selfish ambition, for he could have occupied a high military position but preferred to die for you Lord, our God. Give us, your one holy and apostolic church, the great grace of heroic Christian bravery that should mark soldiers of Christ, in the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.
1. David Woods’s resources on George are exemplary and very helpful: http://www.ucc.ie/milmart/George.html.
2. One place where you can find the story about the dragon is The Golden Legend, a lengthy hagiography written during the medieval period in which the tales of George were so popular. However, many of the tales included went well beyond the narratives that Christian communities were passing down organically. It is hard to tell fiction from fantasy in its pages, though still a useful and illuminating manuscript.
3. Being critical of one’s head of state is never advisable, though sometimes legal. For US service members, the line can be hard to discern. For more information, consult Department of Defense Directive 1325.6, ‘’Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces.” You can access a PDF of the directive at http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/132506P.pdf
4. Adapted from http://st-george-medal.com/St-George-Prayer.htm, accessed May 21, 2013.