Today is the Feast of St George, the patron saint of England and an heroic figure in the Eastern Church. As with many of the early saints, the life of St George is shrouded with legend. Little is known of his life or of his martyrdom. What we do know is that he was born of noble parents in the region of Cappadocia sometime in the latter half of the 3rd century. After the death of his father, he and his mother relocated in Palestine, where the family held some land. George was enlisted in the army of the Roman emperor Diocletian and became one of the emperor’s best soldiers. But his conversion to Christianity put George in direct conflict with Diocletian, who was a bitter enemy of Christians and persecuted them viciously. George spoke personally to the emperor in defense of the Christians. His opposition cost him his life; he was tortured and then beheaded at Lydda in Palestine in the early 4th century.
St George’s popularity grew in the following centuries, but exploded in the 13th century, when an account called the “Golden Legend” credited him with slaying a dragon. According to the “Golden Legend,” the encounter between St George and the dragon took place called “Silene” in Libya (presumably a sufficiently exotic location in which a dragon might be found). The town had a large pond in which a plague-bearing dragon lived. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it two sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery. It happened that the lot fell on the king’s daughter and the king, distraught with grief, promised all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom to the one who could save her. But the people so feared that dragon that no one was found to challenge it, and the king’s daughter was sent out to the lake, dressed as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
St George by chance rode past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away but George vowed to remain. When the dragon rose up out of the waters, St George, fortifying himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. He called to the princess to throw him her girdle and he put it around the dragon’s neck. The princess and St George led the dragon back to the city on this leash, where it still terrified the people. But St George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptized, he would slay the dragon. The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity and George slew the dragon. On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease.
So goes the legend, a fantastic account to be sure, but its popularity speaks to its power as an archetypal image of the triumph of good over evil. For Christians down through the centuries, it was a metaphor of Christ’s triumph over Satan, whom the book of Revelation represents as a dragon who terrorizes the world. We celebrate this victory of life over death, of light over darkness, in this season of Eastertide, proclaiming with Christians throughout the world that, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, “the strife is o’er, the battle won” – and so it is.
But it is our challenge to claim the victory for ourselves, to appropriate and make real in our lives the fruits of Christ’s death and victorious resurrection. For, as St Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians, we are still engaged in conflict with the forces of evil in this world. Like the dragon in the legend, they have been dealt a grievous wound by the death and resurrection of Christ, but are still a dangerous threat. So, Paul tells us to “be strong in the Lord” and to “put on the whole armor of God, so that [we] will be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10).
The “dragons” in our lives take many forms. For some of us, the battle may be with alcoholism or other forms of addiction. We may find ourselves powerless in the face of these evil forces, unable to resist them in our own strength. For others of us, the battle may be with physical or mental disease, with cancer or depression or some other powerful force that saps our energy and strength, and threatens always to rob us of life. For others of us, it may be the daily struggle with temptation and sin that plagues us; we may be tempted by anger, resentment, jealousy or sexual desire, and know ourselves to be vulnerable in the face of them. For still others of us, the battle may be with powerful forces of fear and anxiety that capture and control us.
What particular ‘dragons’ come to mind when you think of your own life and circumstances? Where is it that you are engaged in the struggle with evil? Where do you see evil at work in your own life, in the life of your family or community, in the world itself? Where are you conscious of your need for God’s strength and help? What is it that you need courage to face and overcome?
“Put on the armor of God,” Paul tells us, “Be strong in the Lord.” “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” And “pray at all times,” he reminds us, remembering that “our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against…the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Paul uses the metaphor of armor to remind us of our need for protection in this battle. He urges us to embrace truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the gospel of peace, and the word of God as our defense. He calls upon us to be “strong in the Lord” – never forgetting that it is always and only God’s strength at work in our weakness that can overcome evil and sin.
Awareness is our first defense: watching our thoughts and words, studying their origins and their effects, judging their value and assessing their harm. “Be sober, be watchful,” says the author of the First Letter of Peter, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (I Peter 5:8-9a).
We need not fear — for, as the psalmist reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps.46:1). “The LORD is my light and salvation,” proclaims the psalmist, “whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1)
Trusting in God, we can face every form of evil. But the victory belongs to God and it is only through trusting in God that we will overcome the adversary. “Be strong in the Lord!”
The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shout of holy joy outburst.
Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee,
from death’s dread sting thy servants free,
that we may live and sing to thee.
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