24th April: St George’s Day
The English have a patron saint who isn’t English, about whom next to nothing is known for sure, and who, just possibly, may not have existed at all. But that didn’t stop St George being patriotically invoked in many battles, notably at Agincourt and in the Crusades, and of course it is his cross that adorns the flags of English football fans to this day.
It’s most likely that St George was a soldier, a Christian who was martyred for his faith somewhere in Palestine, possibly at Lydda, in the early fourth century. At some point in the early centuries of the Church he became associated with wider military concerns, being regarded as the patron saint of the Byzantine armies. There is no doubt that St George was held as an example of the ‘godly soldier’, one who served Christ as bravely and truly as he served his king and country.
The story of George and the dragon is of much later date and no one seems to know where it comes from. By the Middle Ages, when George was being honoured in stained glass, the dragon had become an invaluable and invariable visual element, so that for most people the two are inseparable. Pub signs have a lot to answer for here: ‘The George and Dragon’.
However, it’s probably more profitable to concentrate on his role as a man who witnessed to his faith in the difficult setting of military service, and in the end was martyred for his faithfulness to Christ.
The idea of the ‘Christian soldier’ was, of course, much loved by the Victorian hymn-writers – ’Onward, Christian soldiers!’ The soldier needs discipline. The heart of his commitment is to obedience. The battle cannot be avoided nor the enemy appeased. He marches and fights alongside others, and he is loyal to his comrades. In the end, if the battle is won, he receives the garlands of victory, the final reward of those who overcome evil.
St George’s Day presents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to distance the message of his life from the militarism and triumphalism that can easily attach itself to anything connected to soldiers and fighting. The opportunity is to celebrate the ideal of the ‘Christian soldier’ – one who submits to discipline, sets out to obey God truly, does not avoid the inevitable battle with all that is unjust, wrong and hateful in our world, and marches alongside others fighting the same noble cause.
Discipline, obedience, courage, fellowship and loyalty – they’re not the most popular virtues today, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve our admiration.
Photo credit: A. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest, via Wikimedia Commons