Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Feast of St. George

Today is the feast of St. George, martyr. George, along with Christopher, was one of the fourteen "Auxiliary" or "Helper Saints", those saints who's prayers were most effective on behalf of humanity. George is the patron saint of several countries, including England, Canada, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Palestine, and Portugal. At one time there was some doubt about his existence but most historians believe he did exist, although the stories about him are obviously apocryphal. What we do know is that he was born the late third century to a Christian family in Cappadocia. His father was an officer in the Roman army and his mother was from Lydda, a city in Palestine. George's father died when he was very young and he returned with his mother to Lydda where he received his education. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a Roman soldier. He was a good soldier and rapidly rose through the ranks. By his late twenties he gained the rank of Tribunus or Tribune (an elected office), and then Comes, or Count (Companion of the Emperor). He earned the rank Comes while stationed in Nicomedia as a member of the personal guard of the Emperor Diocletian. In the year 303, Diocletian initiated a persecution of Christians throughout the Roman empire, a persecution which was continued by Galerius during his own reign as Emperor (305-311 C.E.). Diocletian's decree stated that those who denied Christ would receive royal honors while those who
refused to deny Christ would be executed. When Comes George received these orders, he "came out" as a Christian, even mocking those who were deluded enough to worship idols. George's refusal to follow orders and his criticism of the royal decree enraged Diocletian, who ordered George's arrest, torture, and execution. After being whipped and tortured on a wheel of swords, George was decapitated on April 23, 303 C.E. Tradition states that the Empress Alexandra and a pagan priest, Athanasius, both witnessed George's martyrdom and were converted by his example, which resulted in their martyrdom, too. George's body was eventually returned to Lydda where his tomb became a place of pilgrimage
and many miracles were attributed to his relics. He was canonized by Pope Gelasius I in 494. The Crusaders returned to Europe with the story of St. George and the Dragon. As far as I can tell, the original references to St. George and dragons have their roots in the Passion of St. George, in which the main antagonist, the governor Dadianus, is also referred to as "the dragon" and "the evil dragon of the abyss" several times in the story. The story of St. George was elaborated in The Golden Legend a collection of the lives of the saints from the Medieval era which is not historically accurate but full of great stories. I'm going to re-tell the story of St. George's martyrdom according to The Passion of St. George. WARNING: LONG STORY FOLLOWS!

Long ago, the governors of the world began a persecution against the Church. They arrested many priests and bishops and dragged them to the altars of idols and tried to force them to offer sacrifice to devils. The governor Dadianus, who had acquired dominion over the four corners of the earth, sent a decree throughout the world stating: "A rumor has come to my ears that He to whom Mary gave birth is the God who alone is to be worshipped and that Apollo and Poseidon and Hermes and Astarte and Zeus and Uranus and Herakles and Scamandros and all the other gods are not to be worshipped at all, only this Jesus. Therefore I call all the governors of the world to come to me to learn the decision of my power in this matter. We will be putting this rumor to rest!" So the seventy governors of the world and their entourages came before Dadianus. Dadianus demanded that all the instruments of the torture chamber be brought before the governors: the brazen bed, the bone smashing choppers, the iron rods, the wheels with knives fixed to them, the wooden horses, the iron gloves, the wooden gloves, the tongue-slitting knives, the tools for pulling out teeth, the iron bone-borers, the sharp saws, and all other implements of Cruel Torture (they forgot the Water Boards). And Dadianus swore an oath, saying: "Anyone who refuses to worship the gods will be tortured and killed. I will break in the towers of their hearts, I will smash their heads, I will cut out their brains with sharp knives, I will saw off their shin bones, I will tear open their bodies and I will cut their limbs from their bodies." This frightened everyone, of course, and even those who had considered becoming martyrs had second thoughts, and a whole three years went by without anyone daring to say "I am a Christian."

A young tribune from Cappadocia named George had come to the city to be made a count, but when he saw the governors worshipping idols he decided to become a soldier for Jesus the Christ and resigned his commission, sold all he had and gave the proceeds to the poor, and then came before the governors and said "I will only worship the One God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!" Dadianus said, "Everyone must sacrifice to Apollo, the saviour of the world, and to the gods, or they will be punished. Who are you and where do you come from?" George said, "The chief name I bear is 'Christian,' I am a Cappadocian by birth and was a soldier in a famous company. I performed my duties as tribune satisfactorily in Palestine. Who are the gods you would force me to worship, O king?" Dadianus replied, "Apollo and Poseidon." George responded, "I will speak for the righteous ones and against your dead gods, not for your sake, O Evil Dragon, or for the sake of your fellow governors, but for the sake of all the people here present who need to hear the truth. Whom would you have me honor, O king; Peter, the chosen one of the Apostles, or Apollo, who corrupts the whole world? Elijah the Tishbite who was an angel on the earth and was taken up to the gates of heaven, or Scamandros the sorcerer who led people astray and committed adultery with Demeter? Tell me, O king, to which of these would you give judgment: Samuel, who prayed to God and obeyed his commandments, or to Poseidon the destroyer of the ships of the sea? Shall I honor Antaeus and Herakles, or the martyrs and prophets who wear crowns? Would you give judgment to Jezebel the slayer of prophets, or to Mary the Virgin Mother of my Lord, Jesus, Christ? Be ashamed, O king, for the things which you worship are not gods but deaf idols!"

Well, this was not what Dadianus wanted to hear, and, true to his word, he demanded that George be arrested. He commanded that George be hung on the wooden horse and tortured until his "bowels flowed out upon the ground." Then the soldiers laid him out and beat him with leather whips until the flesh of his body was torn in shreds, then they sprinkled salt upon his wounds. THEN they excoriated his body with hair sacks until his blood ran like water, but George was patient under these sufferings.

That night the Lord appeared to George and said, "Be strong and of good cheer, beloved George, for I will give you the strength to bear all these sufferings. I have made you lord over these seventy governors, and what ever you say shall happen to them. Look: you will die three times and I will raise you up again, but after the fourth time I myself will come upon a cloud and take you away to a place I have prepared for you. So be strong and do not be afraid for I am with you." Then Jesus embraced George and he and the angels returned to heaven.

The next morning Dadianus demanded that George be brought before him. George was singing "O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us!" He looked at the governor and said, "Governor, my Lord, Jesus Christ, and I have come before you and your stone Apollo." The soldiers didn't like his attitude and grabbed George, whipped him with leather straps and threw him back into prison. Dadianus could see that he had a challenge on his hands, so he put out a call for a sorcerer strong enough to fight George. A sorcerer named Athanasius came and answered the call and said, "O king, live forever! There is nothing I am not able to do!" As proof, he had an ox brought before him. He whispered a few words into the ears of the ox, and the ox was split in two! Scales were brought in and the parts of the ox weighed, and they were exactly equal in weight. Dadianus called for George and said, "George, you must vanquish Athanasius or he will vanquish you. You must kill him or he will kill you." George said to Athanasius, "Hurry brother, and do what ever you plan to do to me, because I see grace drawing near to you." Athanasius had an interesting technique: he took a cup, washed his face over it,
invoked the names of demons over the cup and handed it to George to drink. George drank from the cup and nothing happened. Athanasius said to Dadianus, "Let me try again, and if I fail, I will become a Christian." He took another cup, washed his face over it, and invoked the name of demons even more evil than the first, gave the cup to George, who drank it without anything evil taking place (well, it probably didn't taste very good). Athanasius said, "George, you have the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to save sinners; have mercy on my soul and give me the seal of Christ." When Dadianus heard that, he had Athanasius taken out and martyred, and threw George back in prison. This would become a pattern for the next few days.

The next morning George was brought before Dadianus. The governor had a huge wheel equipped with sharp nails and stakes. The upper part of it was like the edge of a knife while the bottom part was like a sharp two-edged sword. George looked at the wheel and thought, "Well, I'm not coming out of this alive!" Then he thought, "George, why did you let that fear enter your mind? Remember what Jesus said, that he is with you!" He looked up towards heaven and prayed one of those long prayers which are actually sermons for which the saints in these stories are famous. As soon as he finished his prayer and said "amen!" the soldiers threw him on the wheel, which went straight to work and broke his body into ten pieces. Dadianus turned to the governors and said, "Remember, guys, there is no god other than our gods: Apollo and Hermes and Zeus and Athene and Scamandros and Hephaistos and Herakles and Poseidon, from whose hands kings receive power. Where is the God of George? Where is this Jesus? Why hasn't he come and delivered him from my hands?" And he commanded that George's bones be taken outside of the city and thrown into a dry pit so that the Christians couldn't find them and build a martyrium over the spot, therefore attaching the guilt of the murder on the governors' hands. It was time for dinner and the seventy governors all gathered to eat. While they were in the banquet hall there was a great earthquake and the sky became dark and storms were on the sea. The archangel Michael blew his trumpet, and the Lord Jesus appeared on his Chariot of Cherubim and stood at the edge of the pit. Jesus sent Michael down into the pit, where Michael reassembled George's body. Jesus took George by the hand and filled him with life. He then embraced George and returned to heaven with his holy angels.
George went straight to the banquet hall and stood before the governors. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. Dadianus said, "I don't know. Who are you, then?" He responded, "I am George whom you had slain yesterday because you despise my God, the God who could destroy you in a moment!" Dadianus looked at George and said, "You aren't George; you are his ghost or shade or something." But general Anatolius, who knew George, said, "This really is George, who has risen from the dead!" He and his entire company, some three thousand and nine men,
(and one woman from the multitude) were converted and believed in Christ. Of course, they did not make any points Dadianus, who had them all martyred. Then, angry that his dinner had been disturbed and that he had been shamed with George returning from the dead, he had George tied to an iron bed, poured molten lead down his throat, drove sixty nails into his head into the bed. THEN he had a great stone chiseled out to fit over his head, fastened it with lead, and rolled him from a high place, which severed his bones one from another. George bore these tortures with fortitude. Dadianus had the soldiers remove the stone, hang George upside down with a large stone tied to him, and then had a huge fire lit under him. THEN they threw him into a bronze bull full of nails which revolved and crushed his body but didn't kill him. The evening's dinner theatre being finished, George was tossed back into prison while Dadianus decided what to do next.

That night Jesus and the angels appeared once again to George. Jesus reminded George that he had already died once and that Jesus had raised him, and that he was to die two more times and Jesus would raise him two more times, but the fourth time Jesus would come and take him to the place he made for him. He told George that the governors would torture him for seven years, but to be strong and of good cheer. Then he and the angels returned to heaven. George, of course, was inspired by the Lord's visit.

The next morning George was brought before the governors again. A governor named Magnentius said, "George my boy, we governors need a sign which will prove that your God is the true God" (I guess George's resurrection wasn't enough!). He continued, "If you are able to do what we ask, we will all believe and become Christians." George asked what he wanted him to do. Magnentius said, "You see we have seventy thrones here, all with wooden legs; some made of the wood of fruit trees and others from trees with leaves. If you can cause the legs to bud, those from fruit trees with fruit and the others with leaves, we will believe you."
So George got down on his knees and prayed one of those long prayers for which he was getting known. When he said "Amen," the chair legs began to bear fruit and leaves. Magnentius, being a jerk, said, "Herakles is a great god! He can manifest his power in dry wood!" George said, "How can you compare this blind and dumb idol Herakles with the God who made the heavens and the earth, who created all that exists and could destroy you in a moment?" Then Dadianus appeared and said, "Okay George, I've got it worked out; I know how I will destroy you!" And he had George sawed in two with a great saw(!). Well, George died instantly. Then, being the extremist he was, Dadianus had George's body thrown into a cauldron full of hot, molten lead, pitch, bitumen, and animal fat and had it all heated to a high heat until it all melted together, including George's body. Then he had his soldiers break the cauldron into pieces and the pieces taken outside the city and buried
so that the Christians couldn't find any remains and build a martyrium. While the soldiers were walking away there was a great trembling in the air and an earthquake and Jesus and the angels came down from heaven and stood over the place where the cauldron was buried. Jesus said to the angel Zalathiel "Bring up the cauldron." Zalathiel laid the cauldron pieces on the ground and Jesus said, "O George, my chosen one, arise! For I am he that raised up Lazarus from the dead, and now I command you to arise and come forth from the cauldron and stand upon your feet, for I am the Lord your God!" And immediately George arose as if he had suffered no pain at all, and Jesus said, "George, be strong and of good cheer. There will be great joy in heaven because of your contest. Remember, I am with you. You're going to die two more times!" And Jesus and the angels returned to heaven.

George headed back to town and went about the city teaching about Jesus, and he even performed quite a few miracles, which we can discuss another time, as this is going on and on. Of course, once Dadianus heard George was alive again AND that he was teaching and performing miracles, he had George arrested and flogged without mercy until his flesh was in pieces AND had a fire lit under him AND placed vessels of fire on his head and THEN hung him over iron pots of fire until he died. THEN he had his attendants take what was left of George's body to Mount Siris where the birds would devour his flesh. As the attendants were walking down from the mountain, there was thunder and lightening and the whole mountain shook, and Jesus and the holy angels came on a cloud, and Jesus said, "O excellent and chosen one, rise up from where you lie!" George rose up, dusted himself off, and chased after the attendants saying, "Hey, wait for me and I'll go back with you!" When the attendants saw George coming up behind them, they were astounded and fell to their knees and asked for forgiveness and for the seal of Christ. George baptized them all, and when they came before the governor they all said, "We are Christians!" to which Dadianus responded by having them all tortured and killed. Once again, Dadianus had George arrested. George decided to trick Dadianus and the governors, and he told them that, after being killed three times and tortured for the past seven years, he would finally do what they wanted.
They said, "We want you to worship Apollo and Herakles." George said, "Okay, I will." Dadianus was overjoyed and kissed George and brought him back to the palace and introduced George to his wife, Alexandra, the Queen. Then he went off and left the two alone (?!?). George spent time talking with her and converted her. Then George asked to be taken to the idol of Apollo. He challenged the demon which inhabited the idol. The demon made the idol get up off its pedestal and walk down the steps to confront George. They had a bit of a theological tiff, and then George stamped the ground with his foot and the abyss opened up and the idol and demon were cast into the pit.

When Dadianus heard that George had converted the Queen, and had destroyed the idol of Apollo, he had George condemned to death once again (novel idea!). George came rejoicing to site of his impending execution. The seventy governors and their entourages were gathered there to watch. George said to the soldiers who were holding him, "Brothers, let me pray for the seventy governors who have tortured me for the past seven years." George looked into heaven and said, "O God, who sent fire from heaven to Elijah to devour the prophets of Baal, I pray that you will send the same fire and devour these governors and those around them that none will be left alive. Thine is the glory for ever and ever, Amen." And fire came from heaven and burned up the seventy governors AND all their armies and attendants, the entire entourage, some five thousand people! Then George prayed that his name would heal all those inflicted by unclean spirits. When he was finished with his prayer, the Lord Jesus and the holy angels appeared to him and said, "Come up now into heaven and rest yourself in the dwelling which I have prepared for you in the kingdom of my Father. O excellent George, I will fulfill every thing which you have requested and many other things even greater than these." Then George said to the executioners, "Come and do what you have been commanded to do" and he stretched out his neck and they chopped off his head, and water and milk flowed forth (which is pretty weird!). And Jesus took George's soul and embraced it and took it up to heaven.

So, there you go! That's the story of the Passion of St. George, somewhat abbreviated, as you don't have all day to be reading blogs!

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