Saturday, April 23, 2016

Liturgical Notes on the Feast of St George

St George has the distinction of being one of the earliest examples of a Saint whose biography was recognized to be historically doubtful. A document of the early 6th century known as the Gelasian Decree mentions him twice, once to say that his acts are not read by the Roman church, “lest even a slight occasion for mockery arise,” and again on a long list of “apocryphal” books. The term “apocryphal” in the context of this decree simply means that the books were not approved to be read in church, which is to say, to be read in the liturgy; nevertheless, it is significant that only one other “passio”, that of Ss Quiricus and Julitta, is so noted. (Ironically, the Gelasian Decree as we have it today postdates the reign of the Pope to whom it is attributed, St Gelasius I (492-96), and is therefore itself technically “apocryphal.”)

St George Slaying the Dragon, by Paris Bordone, 1525; now in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums. 
For this reason, in the pre-Tridentine editions of the Roman Breviary, the single historical lesson of his feast consists of only two brief statements. “In the Persian city of Diospolis, the passion of St George the Martyr. Although the deeds of his passion are counted among the apocryphal writings, nevertheless, the Church honors his most illustrious martyrdom with veneration among the crowns of the martyrs.” Diospolis, also called Lydda, was actually in the Roman province of Syrian Palestine in George’s time; renamed Georgiopolis in the early Byzantine period, it is now in the state of Israel, and called by its Hebrew name Lod. Nothing is said about the era of his martyrdom, which took place in the persecution of Diocletian, from 303 to 306.

In the Breviary of St Pius V, not even this brief notice was retained, and generic lessons from the common of Martyrs in Eastertide are read instead. The feast itself, however, remained as a semidouble, even though many other Saints with dubious passions were either removed from the calendar, or reduced to commemorations. (In 1568, when the first edition was published, semidouble was the second of three grades of feasts.) This would seem to be an act of recognition that the skepticism of the hagiographers, however long-standing or well-founded it may be, must yield to popular devotion; a principle also recognized, for example, when the feast of St Catherine of Alexandria was restored to the general Calendar in 2002.

The Western Church’s reserve towards St George’s history does not seem to have impeded that devotion in the least, as witnessed among other things by the popularity of his name, which derives from the Greek word “geōrgos – a farmer.” He is honored as the Patron Saint of many places, including over 150 cities and towns in Italy, and most famously, of England, although it is not clear how exactly the latter came about.

In art, St George is traditionally shown as a knight on horseback in the act of killing a dragon, which in a particular region (the Golden Legend says a city in Libya, but there are many versions of the story), was about to eat the local king’s daughter. Surprisingly, this is not the legend to which the Gelasian Decree refers as a possible occasion for mockery, as it was unknown before the 12th century. This fact this has not stopped some of the more cynical hagiographers (perhaps “credulous” would be a better way to describe them,) from describing St George as a Christianized version of the Greek mythological character Perseus, who slew a different and much larger monster as it was about to eat a king’s daughter.

The Byzantine Rite has no such reservations about St George, as is often the case with some of the best loved legends and traditions about the Saints. He is honored with the titles “Great Martyr”, meaning one who suffered many and various torments during his martyrdom, and “Bearer of the Standard of Victory”; in the preparation rite of the Divine Liturgy, he is named in the company of martyrs second only to St Stephen. His feast always occurs in Eastertide, unless it be impeded by Holy Week or Easter week; one of the texts for Vespers of his feast refers to this in a very clever way.
Thou didst suffer along with the Savior, and having willingly imitated His death by death (thanato ton thanaton … mimesamenos), o glorious one, thou reignest with Him, clothed in bright splendor, adorned with thy blood, decorated with the scepter of thy prizes, outstanding with the crown of victory, for endless ages, o Great-Martyr George.
The phrase “having willingly imitated His death by death” makes an obvious reference to words of the well-known Paschal troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he conquered death (thanato ton thanaton … patesas), and gave life to those in the tomb.”

A famous icon of the Virgin and Child with Ss George (left) and Theodore, from the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai, ca. 600 A.D. (public domain image from Wikipedia.)

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