There is weekly column that appears in our local newspaper for the clergy to contribute, called From the Pulpit. Last year, around Halloween, I called them up and asked if I can submitted something related to the holiday. They told me it doesn’t work like that. If I wanted to contribute they’ll send me a schedule and that’s when my column would appear. They sent it to me back in January and I was scheduled to mail something in by the end of April. I filed the letter away, forgot about it and then later remembered that it was April something or other. When I found it I discovered it was due in two days, on Holy Tuesday. I decided to write about St. George. It appeared today in the paper or read it here:
George the Great Martyr was hero for standing up for his faith
From the Pulpit
By Rev. Milovan Katanic
The classic image one has of a hero is usually seated on a horse, fighting off the attacks of an evil monster with a sword in one hand and, in the other, a damsel who had hitherto been in distress. That image is very reminiscent of a well-known icon in Eastern Orthodox iconography; more specifically, the icon of St. George the Great Martyr. In the month of May the Serbian Orthodox community of Hermitage, whose church is dedicated to this same brave martyr, will celebrate his memory with a special festal celebration.
That having been said one wonders if St. George can truly be considered a “hero.” After all, the image we’re most familiar with, of him seated on a horse and slaying a dragon, is more legend than history, which is to say that it never happened! Perhaps the lore was prompted by the publication of “The Golden Legend,” a book by James of Voragine in 1265. Here is described how the soldier George was passing through a town that, unbeknownst to him, was being terrorized by a neighboring dragon. In order to satisfy the dragon’s appetite the villagers had been supplying it with two sheep a day, which later turned into one man and one sheep.
The king of this region devised a sort of lottery system to determine who would be the next victim. This rather ingenious system would come back to haunt him as the lot fell on his own daughter. It was when the daughter was sent to the dragon that George happened to be passing through the town and spotted a lady weeping. He asked her what the problem was but she, rather valiantly, told him to go his way unless he also be fed to the dragon. At that very instant the dragon appeared, George took out his sword and slayed the dragon, becoming the town hero. The king offered him gold and riches but George only asked that the money be given to the poor. Some fifteen thousand were baptized in that town on that occasion and Christianity was introduced to the people.
The only factual detail from this account is that he actually was a soldier. Yet, his heroism derived not from slaying dragons but from standing up to his supreme commander, the Emperor Diocletian, and confessing his Christian faith. He subsequently became known as a “great martyr” as the emperor, in his unrelenting and unabashed fury, lashed torture upon torture on him. After all, he was one of the emperor’s best soldiers and it enraged him to unimaginable levels that he would rather bow down to Christ than himself.
Would this courageous act of confession constitute heroism in our contemporary lexicon? While atheistic dictatorships are not extinct from the more remote corners of the world, they certainly have no place here. No, evil and godless rulers are not forbidding us from going to church. We have enough problems competing with our teens’ extracurricular activities to worry about evil rulers. A pious, church-going family from my parish missed almost a month of church because of their child’s sports schedule. They complained to the coach, but to no avail. Planning anything with teen groups in almost all churches has become a true task. Of course, since many of the teens rely on parents for transportation, the problem becomes all the worse. Such stories have become commonplace in the recent past and, in most cases, it’s not only clergy who are complaining.
It’s funny, even though the story of St. George with the dragon is fictional, icons still depict him seated on a horse and slaying a fiery monster. Rather than saving a damsel in distress, the slaying of a dragon is symbolic for slaying godlessness, idolatry; the sins of gluttony, greed, etc. In the end I suppose that’s what real heroes do — they save their souls.
Rev. Milovan Katanic is pastor of St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, Hermitage.