Recently, Fr. Panayiotis (Protopresbyter at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church) and thirty-eight other pilgrims like myself went on a fourteen day pilgrimage to the holy sites and churches throughout Israel and Cyprus. Of our many stops and stories, one of the first — a brief trip to venerate the relics of St. George the Trophy-bearer — proved to be particularly moving.
We arrived at the Church and Tomb of St. George in Lod (otherwise known as Lydda), a central territory in Israel and the original dwelling place of his Palestinian mother. Lod itself is a mixed Jewish-Arab community, so synagogues and minarets decorate the desert surroundings. This church, built in 1870, actually shares part of its ancient basilica with a mosque called “El-Khidr,” meaning “of the Green One.” The “Green One” is considered to be the Arab syncretization of St. George.
As we entered the church and Fr. Panayiotis presented St. George’s relics, the unforgettable sound of Islamic prayers invaded the air from the adjacent mosque. This should have come as no surprise. We had arrived in the late afternoon, directly before one of the five daily calls to prayer for the Muslims, ‘Asr. Yet in the presence of St. George’s relics, this sound was unsettling and startling to us all. Fr. Panayiotis quietly said, “You will never forget this moment,” as we stood still, waiting for the prayers to subside. After this, we continued to see St. George’s icon and depiction carved, plastered and painted throughout Palestinian and Israeli territories on doors, mosques, churches, posters, etc. According to our tour guide, Yianni, St. George is venerated, worshiped, and even feared among almost all surrounding ethnic and religious groups. Yet, this reality raised the question: why is St. George so revered among such different religions and people?
The answer, most likely, rests both in the past and the present manifestations of St. George’s renown. For those who are unfamiliar with St. George’s story, he was a well-established Roman soldier from Cappadocia during the time of Emperor Diocletian (the late 3rd century), earning the high ranking title of “comites” during his time there. Born into a Christian family, he was raised piously and instructed in the Christian life. Christianity, during St. George’s time in the army, became somewhat of a religious “enemy” of Diocletian — who began to exert all his effort toward its extermination. Despite this reality, St. George confessed his Christian faith and was thus imprisoned, tortured, and challenged by Diocletian. However, St. George’s great love for God and spiritual resilience in the midst of suffering made him not only become a Victory-bearer, but a bearer of God’s Holy Spirit — working miracles, healing and delivering those in need.
Out of his miraculous life, the particular miracle — either instructive or historical — which gave him the name “Dragon-slayer” has gained special attention from all branches of Christianity and even Islam. It is the bedtime story favorite: an oppressive dragon, a princess in peril, and a soldier on a white horse coming to the rescue. The central focus of the story, though, is not one his great victorious feat over the physical serpent, but over the spiritual oppression which it inflicted upon the people. It is a story about the power of things done in Christ’s name and a story about finding and acting upon the strength one finds in Christ.
In a sentence, it can be said that St. George was a warrior — famous for his miraculous feats in the world, but revered for his battle on spiritual grounds. Russia, Georgia, England, and other smaller countries have adopted him as their patron saint. Rarely can an Orthodox church be found without his icon. In fact, churches in countries of religious persecution often have double names — one for the patron saint and the other, St. George. Even now, Muslim women visit the church in Lod to pay their respects toward him. The Muslims who built the adjacent mosque in Lod only took a very small portion of the church for fear of angering St. George. Although the divided branches of Christianity rarely agree on much, almost all of the liturgical ones hold St. George in particular esteem. Sports teams, philanthropic circles, scouting troupes, army based organizations, and countless other groups associate themselves with St. George, invoking either consciously or unconsciously his blessed strength and intercession for their intense pursuits.
Books have been written and hundreds more books could be written about this Saint — the information concerning him reaches into the past identity of Christianity, mythology, philosophy, and art and his influence continues today in the outermost reaches of Orthodoxy and religion. However, the question remains: Why is he so revered?
Perhaps it is because, as the “definition” of Saint implies, his life is a “model for imitation” — so overwhelmingly virtuous that it cannot be hampered by the bonds of differing religion or ethnicity. His story transcends these barriers because it is common to all of humanity: the hero and the defender and the warrior. The unique and miraculous element of St. George’s story, however, in comparison with every other epic, religious hero is that Christ envelopes the beginning and end of his story. Each action — legendary or not — was wrapped in purpose for Christ, not ego, not for the protection of a nation, not for vainglory or “duty.” Christ is Truth and St. George’s life and martyrdom was wrapped in that Truth. Truth prevails and stands as a light on a hill for all to see regardless of their willingness. This is what St. George was and is to the world — an admittedly fallen human wrapped in the grace of Christ’s divinity to shine as a light on a hill for all to see: the Orthodox, the pagan, the Muslim, the Catholic, and all nations. St. John says, in Revelation 7:9, that he looked, “and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands;” St. George’s penetrating presence throughout all nations stands as an example to us all: to attain union with Christ in such a way that our light cannot be ignored by the nations and thus, fulfill Christ’s words to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).” We must attain this union in such a way that even our tombs will declare Christ’s victory, just like the tomb of St. George does to this day — declaring it to all nations and standing as a living testimony to all.
View our video on the Life of St. George
View our video of Our Pilgrimage to the Church of St. George
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