Revelation 21:5-7; Luke 9:23-26
When I was a boy my favorite comic book was The Amazing Spiderman. Every month I haunted the drugstore waiting for the next issue. When it finally arrived I’d read it over and over again. It was great fun imagining myself as the quirky yet powerful superhero.
Although comic books date back only to the 1930’s and 40’s, the kids of bygone eras had something every bit as exciting: The Golden Legend, a classic of the faith from the 13th century, which contained in great and often colorful detail the dashing exploits of the heroes of ancient Christianity.
Among the most dashing was St. George. Like most saints of the early Church, little is known. He appears to have been a young soldier martyred in Palestine around the year 304. What we do know is that there must have been something especially appealing about him, for he quickly became legendary. The Golden Legend includes a few stories about him, the most familiar being the dragon. Passing through a foreign kingdom and coming upon a princess about to be devoured by a dragon, George slayed the dragon and converted the kingdom to Christ. There is also the amazing story of his martyrdom. Arrested during a persecution of Christians, George was handed over to the torturers. Despite their best attempts, which included beating him literally to pieces, crushing him beneath heavy spiked wheels, and submerging him in molten lead, George miraculously reassembled unharmed. Amazed and inspired by this, the governor’s own wife converted to the faith. Infuriated, he had her executed and George finally martyred by beheading.
But that’s not the end of the story. If he was powerful in life, St. George was even more so in death. The Legend tells of victories won by soldiers carrying his relics into battle, of healings at his tomb by those placing their hand in it, and of healings of those who touched the chains he wore in prison. His tomb became a place of pilgrimage and churches bearing his name were built as far away as Italy. Little wonder that England, whose Crusaders brought home his story, chose him as its national patron, that a kingdom in the Caucasus mountains was named Georgia in his honor, or that to this day Palestinian Muslims, Jews, and Christians would all honor him and ask his intercession for those suffering from various illnesses. Clearly, St. George became a man of mythic proportions.
Unfortunately many stumble on the word “myth.” As early as the 5th century, the stories of St. George were dismissed as fantasy. Like some ancient, amazing Spiderman, he was too large for life; his adventures unreal and unrealistic; the product of uneducated, unsophisticated people. A fairy tale.
They completely miss the point, as Chesterton knew when he said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Or, to paraphrase the French philosopher Jean-Paul Ricœur, the purpose of myths is not to tell the truth about the world but the truth beyond it. The deeper truth about St. George is written between the lines of the stories, not within them. What matters is not that St. George slayed a dragon but that, in committing to follow Christ, he received the grace to slay the dragons in his own life. Similarly, it doesn’t matter whether he was actually beaten to pieces, crushed by wheels, submerged in molten lead, and miraculously reassembled; the truth is that St. George loved Christ and did what he asked in the gospel; he took up his cross daily and followed him (Luke 9:23), saving his life by quite literally losing it.
Of course these truths are not reserved to St. George, they are for all of us. In Revelation Christ says, Behold, I make all things new (Revelation 21:5); for that to mean anything, we must ask for the grace to find and slay our own dragons. We all have them; they are the sins we allow to linger, the attachments we find hardest to put aside, and the fear, self-doubt, and self-condemnation that keep us from drawing nearer to God. The fear is real because the pain is real; it is the pain of having our pride beaten to pieces, allowing our bodies to be crushed by illness or infirmity, and submerging ourselves in the depths of humility. Nevertheless, the truth is that if we allow the power of God to work within us, we will experience what even the legend of St. George could never imagine: The joy of being reassembled into the person that Christ has called us from all eternity to be.
St. George, pray for us.