Sermon: Monday 23 April 2012
St George’s Day
The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
When my son Richard was about 4 years old we visited a church which had a large gallery of statues of saints. When I asked him which one he liked best he said he liked the one with the toothbrush. Brushing teeth was big on our parental agenda at the time, thus I did not tell him that St George killed the dragon rather than brushing his teeth. Also the dragon depicted in the church was rather sweet and a lot smaller than St George.
However, I wonder what would have happened if St George had not killed the dragon. There are other saints who dealt with dragons differently. St Simeon Stylites, who spent most of his life standing on a column in Syria praying for those who visited him in the desert, was visited by a dragon and his family, according to an early hagiography. Simeon preached to the dragon about Jesus and the dragon was moved to tears. As a result the dragons went away peacefully and might even have adopted a vegetarian diet. From all I know about mythology this seems a far more healthy approach than the attempt to kill the dragon. Usually the lasting solution seems to be to kiss the frog or to embrace the monster, rather than killing it. The dragon can stand for all sorts of things: inner forces or outside power, anything which threatens the integrity of a human being.
Interestingly, the story of St George does not end with the slaying of the dragon, because in the end he did not succeed with this seemingly straightforward approach: the dragon came back in another shape. The victory was a temporary illusion: the dragon came back in the shape of the emperor Diocletian and this time St George decided to deal differently with it. St George was stripped of his armour, faced the dragon nakedly and chose to die as a martyr. It was his choice to follow Jesus in the way he dealt with threatening power: he could have given in to the emperor’s demand for sacrifice or he could have fought to the death – instead he chose the way of submission and powerlessness. I think those two parts of his life are intrinsically connected because his story is a story of growth and development: George finally only succeeded in dealing with the dragon by following Jesus in the way he died.
I think the St George who chose martyrdom and laid down his armour is far less popular than the one who attempted to slay the dragon.
A colleague of mine has a lovely fridge magnet which says: ‘O Lord Jesus, please protect me from your followers.’ When I was a vicar in Leeds I found it quite bizarre that my relationship with the local reformed rabbi was extremely positive whereas the relationship with other Christian clergy was in some cases somewhat complicated. Similar things could be said about the followers of St George – he has a number of friends he would struggle to recognize.
We know little about the real Saint George, but we do know that he was Turkish. This would probably bar him from entering the country if those who use his name most frequently were in power in this country. He can be interpreted as a high‐ranking Roman soldier who stood up to the intolerance, prejudice and oppression of the Roman Empire. At a time when the Empire was trying to strengthen its position by squashing political, cultural and religious diversity, Saint George spoke out. He rejected the argument that people of different faiths were a threat to Roman security and interests, and he offered practical help to those who were being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of his stance, he was tortured and then executed.
St George is a subversive patron saint, simply because his attractive easy approach with the dragon did not succeed, tempting as this way of dealing with dragons might appear to be. Looking at St George’s relevance today it would have been more honest for the EDL to parade a dragon as their mascot, rather than wearing T‐shirts with Saint George’s cross.
St George stands both for the easy way of dealing with a threat and for the Christian way and as such is anything but the sole possession of the English: he is patron saint not only of England but also of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; and of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (second to Saint Mark). He’s also patron saint of soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, farmers and field workers, riders and saddlers, and he helps those suffering from leprosy, plague and syphilis. In recent years he has been adopted as patron saint of Scouts. This list may be a bit long for your taste, but the values of bravery and chivalry, the values of standing up against intolerance and hatred are ever fresh and called for, are always needed and are most appropriate for our city of Leicester. In church we remember St George the naked and unarmed Martyr, not the slayer of dragons.
Let us pray for our country and for our city of Leicester, and as we remember St George, let us stand together against the dragons of intolerance and hatred. Amen.
© Revd Canon Johannes Arens