Sunday, June 5, 2016
The festival of St. George as a reminder to women and men to live fearlessly
Festivals are a time when people come together in hope and prayer interceding to a saint and asking for God’s grace and mercy. But one should also note that people also come to a festival in a flow of tradition and as a performed ritual. It becomes a time when one nudge leads to another and then another and further another. There are many who don’t identify a saint with their present life and there is therefore a disassociation with the saint in some way. This is not to say that all people come to church during a festival not knowing why but that many come without associating the life of the saint with their own!
St. George was a solider born to a Greek father and a Christian mother who lived near Palestine in the 3rd or 4th century C.E. He joined the army and rose up in life very quickly because he was a good soldier. He then became the joint leader of a 1000 strong regiment and was popular among his peers. This was when the Emperor Diocletian brought out an edict that all Christians in the empire should come back to the state religion and that Christianity would not be encouraged by the state. St. George on hearing this changes his stance of being loyal to the state and says that he is loyal first to Christ and then to the state. Till this point of time the state through weapons gave him the security he needed. But he is prepared to shed the weapons in favour of Christ and the protection God offers him. St. George is tortured and then asked to convert from Christianity but he keeps refusing and the torture and the range and scope of the torture also keeps changing. Finally the soldiers and the emperor understand that the only way to make St. George quiet is to behead him, to separate his head from his body because every single cell in his body when alive kept repeating the name Christ. Such is his faith that it is said that after his torture the empress and the chief sorcerer in the empire also join St. George in his martyrdom after accepting Christ.
There are a few things for us to learn from the martyrdom of St. George and from one of the most popular traditions about him. The martyrdom of St. George is a model of disarming ourselves and our enemies. We live in a world where we use arms and ammunition to get our things done. Many countries and media houses create monsters so that they can then destroy the monsters they create and do a victory lap. But St. George is not like that. Instead he rejects arms and violence and preaches Christ because the peace of Christ is beyond the power of any arms and violence. John 14:27 says “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Further in John 16:33 Christ says “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” As it is said in Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” St. George is overcome by a peace he perhaps never had before and that is the peace which gives him courage.
How do we identify that St. George was transformed by the renewal of his mind and his discernment made him fight for peace and shun violence? What does this understanding give us to identify and understand in today’s world? The single powerful symbol for us to identify with is the picture of St. George which we have in most of our churches. This is the picture of a man who looks like a solider and is on a white horse putting a spear at a dragon, with what seems like a woman in the background.
But look closely at this picture on top. The usual story behind the traditional picture (at the bottom) is that a particular city was hounded by a dragon who lay at the only source of water for the city. This was followed by the need of the dragon to eat something. Water was available for the city only if the dragon was fed. Initially the dragon was satisfied with cattle. But after that was exhausted, the people who were selected according to lots were fed to the dragon. One day the daughter of the leader of the city is selected by lot to go before the dragon. The leader is helpless and the young woman is led to the outskirts of the city and left there. This is when St. George who is passing by stops and asks the young woman what the problem is. She asks him to go on as she is scared to even accept and talk about her fear. St. George persists and she is ready to engage her fear and so tells him about the dragon. On hearing this St. George does not move on but helps the woman to disarm her fear. He mellows down the fearful dragon and tells the young woman to put a rope around the neck of the dragon and walk it into the city. By now the young woman is fearless and does just that. Imagine the sight of a crowd who were waiting to hear the sound of the satisfied dragon after having devoured the young woman. Instead they saw her walking into the city, fearlessly with another man on a horse. They immediately believe in God. The transition they have in their lives is quick because such is the sight they see. They, like the woman are not scared anymore.
The festival of St. George is a time to look at and accept our fears, engage our fears and disarm our fears. The woman, like a woman in our society today was scared. She was scared of evil befalling her but she must have also been scared of the soldier who she thought must have come to harm her. But the solider does not do that and instead helps her go through the difficult process of handling her fear. The festival of St. George is the time we get to help each other and to help ourselves to take fear head on but without killing anyone and without harming anyone. Instead we use the peace and love of Christ to completely disarm and diffuse evil and the fear of evil.
St. George offers us an opportunity to accept Christ and transform our lives from what it is now. It is not to pull back to the safety of the city and hear the woman die but to stand for the life of the woman even though we do not know her before. As responsible and religious human beings we can also do just that. We can stand up for one another and use the peace of God to transform ourselves from fearful by standers to fearless people who interact with the person nearby to together create a fearless reaction to a situation. The festival of St. George should invigorate us to do such acts of fearlessness.
(Parts of this was preached as a festival sermon at the St. George Knanaya Church, Domlur, Bengaluru on May 28, 2016.)