Today we remember St. George, Soldier and Martyr, Patron of England and many, many other places, including the Holy Land. He was from Lod, a town near the Tel Aviv airport, where there’s a Greek Orthodox church named for him. He is so familiar in popular Muslim piety that he has a nickname: Al Khader, which means the green one—no one seems to know why. When some disaster happens, Muslims might say Ya hala’ Al Khader! Help us now, St. George! And at Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, there’s a lively annual festival of St. George which involves visiting his shrine at Al Khader, a nearby village named for him. Well into the 20th century Christians, Muslims and even Jews visited this shrine.
There is something about St. George that strikes a universal chord. We see him on horseback, in full armor, slaying a dragon with a sword, protecting a damsel; he is an archetype of the battle between good and evil, in which good ultimately triumphs.
But there is irony in that depiction, which is based on pious legend. George’s real triumph over evil was not on horseback in body armor, spear in hand. St. George, Al Khader, conquered evil in his martyrdom; he refused to renounce his faith as required by the Emperor Diocletian, so was put to death, gruesomely. In a sense, he participated in Christ’s own martyrdom and triumph over evil on the cross.
The archetypal image of a soldier slaying a dragon may have universal appeal. The Christian vision of triumph over evil in the cross of Jesus is more limited in attraction—even Christians don’t quite get it. It seems only natural to resist evil with force, to seek violent retribution for wrongs committed—there is a certain justice in that. But, as Paul points out, the real battle is won with a different kind of armor: truth, righteousness, peace. These are the only helmets and breastplates and swords we need.
The triumph of the cross is still as radical an idea as ever. It is still difficult to comprehend, still difficult to fully accept that, ultimately, the most effective way to combat evil is not with more evil. But, the cross stands as witness.
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