St George only lived into his late 20’s before he gave his life of Christ. I shall explain how he died in a moment. First a little of his background. He was born sometime in the late 270’s A.D. His Greek Christian father, Gerontius, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia, his Greek Christian mother, Polychronia, was from Lydda in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. George was of course raised a Christian, perhaps mainly in Lydda, later in Cappadocia. At the age of 14 George lost his father and a few years later his mother died also. George decided to follow his father into a military career and he offered his services to Emperor Diocletian, rising rapidly through the ranks to the post of military Tribune in the Emperor’s Imperial guard at Nicomedia. The Emperor, however, was to become the worst persecutor of Christians, and indeed the final significant enemy of the Church at the turn of the fourth century, just before St Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 A.D.
On 24 February 303 Emperor Diocletian issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested, with half of them being forced to offer a sacrifice to the pagan Roman gods. The overwhelming majority refused and paid for it with their lives as martyrs. St George was prominent among these for his confession of Christ, his courage, his immunity from bribery and endurance through prolonged torture. He was eventually executed by decapitation in Nicomedia on 23 April, his feast day, in the year 303 A.D. The Empress, Alexandra, and Athanasius, a pagan priest, were so profoundly moved by St George’s martyrdom, that they in turn became Christians, only to be martyred themselves. The cult of St George grew rapidly in the Church, spreading from the east to the west. He was glorified as a saint by Pope St Gelasius I in 494 A.D. and was mentioned among the martyrs by the English St Bede, the historian.
In England, St George appears to have been commemorated with St Edmund the Martyr informally as co-patrons of England for some time but at the Synod of Oxford in 1222, St George’s feast day received even greater prominence as a national celebration, and from this point we can say that he became the patron saint of England. Here we might reflect on the unexpected dimension of this veneration of St George among the English. How did a soldier saint from central Asia of Greek origin come to be so revered in England in the late Middle Ages? Even after the Reformation when the Protestants ruthlessly stripped the Christian year of most of its saints, St George survived, doubtless on account of popular appeal. Doubtless then, as now, his cult is inextricably bound up with the aspirations of England as a Christian nation which bears his emblem of a red cross on a white background on the national flag.
Some misguided people, on account of the abuse of this flag by right-wing thugs, feel that it should not be given any prominence, but, as an Englishman, I cannot possibly agree. The flag of England bears the cross of St George on account of our legacy as an explicitly Christian nation. Secularists, atheists and some proponents of other religions doubtless would love to replace this flag with something more inclusive; inclusive that is according to their own point of view, but not mine. The cross of St George reminds us of our Christian heritage, and frankly, that’s worth fighting for. We fight for this not with military might but with the martyric witness of our confession of Christ, and it is this which truly honours St George who made the same costly confession.
England, of course, is not the only nation that has St George as its patron. The first Christian nation, Georgia, evangelised by St Nino of Cappadocia, a relative of St George was originally part of the Church of Antioch until it acquired full self-rule or autocephaly in the year 1010 after nearly 5 centuries of maturation and growth. St George has been venerated in Georgia since the fourth century. The nation’s flag consists of the traditional cross of St George with four smaller equal crosses in the corners. Not only Georgia but also Malta and Gozo, Portugal, Romania, Aragon and Catalonia have or share St George as their patron. St George is also popularly venerated in the Levant in the Middle East. The shrine at Beit Jala, venerated by Jews as the birthplace of the Prophet Elias (Elijah), is also well attended by both Christians and Muslims who seek the prayers of the saint for all sorts of maladies.
It may strike many as rather odd that Muslims should venerate the saint but St George is very popular in certain traditions of Islam in the Middle East, where he is referred to as El Khudder or “The Green one.” The origins of this veneration among Muslims is difficult to disentangle from local folk traditions but it seems that El Khudder is valued by them also as a martyr against idolatry. It is well known that in the Antiochian Monastery of St George Al Homeyra in the Valley of the Christians in Syria on this the feast Day of St George, thousands of Muslim as well as Christian pilgrims can be seen venerating the saint in complete harmony. All this of course has been put at risk by radicals and foreigners interfering in the affairs of Syria. At a time when there is a great need for dialogue and common work between Muslims and Christians of goodwill, the extraordinary thing is that St George continues to provide that safe space for these relations to flourish. By the will of God, long may it be so!
But let us now return to these shores. What of St George today for the English? Can we hope for something a little more profound than a flag to unfurl at national football events? Does England have a future as a Christian nation? Such things perhaps are known only to God yet I will venture that there is every hope that as a nation we can put aside our amnesia, our forgetfulness of Christ, and that we can grow once more again to love the Saviour who brought peace, stability and unity to this land. His blood red cross by which we are saved must always be prominent in our hearts and lives against the burning white backcloth of his glorious resurrection. This cross of St George, this cross of Calvary, (for that is what it is), should be displayed not with nationalistic excess but with humility and repentance. If anyone can rebuild this nation, Christ can but, as always, God waits for our response and common work as members of his Church so that Jerusalem can indeed be built afresh in England’s green and pleasant land.