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Weekly Message 04-23-08: St. George the Martyr

St. George the Martyr

A profoundly meaningful word this day of Passion Week as well as in celebration of the feast of St. George the Martyr is that of "witness." We know the word means one who tells the truth of what he knows from personal experience. Just prior to ascending to heaven, our Lord said to his followers, "You are my witnesses." John 24: 48. Christians, therefore, are to give testimony to the meaning and experience they have of Christ in their lives. It is why St. Paul reminds us, "Everyone of us will have to give an account of himself before God" Romans 14:12.

Surely people who are serious about this are those who have been glorified by God and are now known to us as saints. These are men and women who have testified by their lives by their deeds, as well as words and example, to the first place of Christ in their hearts.

The Greek word for witness is martyr. And there is no doubt but that the greatest witnesses for the truth of our Christian faith are the countless-martyr-saints of ages past. Martyrs are those saints who testify to the truth of Christ at the expense of their lives. They choose to die rather than deny their professed faith in the Lord.

For the first three hundred years in the story of the Church no one could be a baptized and professed Christian without fear of losing his life. The initial persecutions were at the hands of those who crucified the Lord and who refused to repent. In their guilt, they encouraged the pagan Roman authorities to also continue persecution in the hope It would annihilate believers as even modern day non-believers continue to do. We know that St. Stephen is called to be the first martyr and he does it willingly. All the persecutions were intended to stamp out the Christian faith, but of course, they did not succeed. Tertullian tells us that the blood of early martyrs was the seed upon which the faith of Christ was established in the world. People were inspired by the zealous example of those who suffered and died for the Lord. As Christians were persecuted, they dispersed and carried with them the most prized possession and shared it with others in their newly adopted communities.

Beginning in the year 64, persecutions became so violent and widespread because they were being advanced by the pagan emperors of Rome. We lived through what are described as ten major persecutions which engulfed the Church. It became commonplace to kill and vilify Christians. They were thrown to wild beasts, they were tarred and set afire to serve as lamp posts; they were tied to stakes and ravenous animals were sent to dispose of them. Early believers were forbidden to gather for worship, but they dug hundreds of miles of underground caves and tunnels called catacombs where they gathered in secret to celebrate the Eucharist and where they buried their beloved dead.

So great was their number that it is impossible to tell the exact number who died as living sacrifices, as martyrs for the cause of Christ. And among them is the saintly individual whose memory we recall today.

St. George is called the victorious great-martyr. He lived in Syria in the latter part of the third century and was an officer in the Roman army. His problem was that he was also Christian and the emperor at the time was Diocletian who ordered one of the most terrible of all persecutions.

St. George was stationed in Nicomedia when the decree was posted for public inspection. One legend tells us that he took the document and tore it to pieces while declaring himself a Christian and as a result was promptly arrested. He was ordered to offer pagan sacrifice which would have saved his life, but he refused. Condemned to death, he became a martyr about the year 303. His names spread very quickly throughout the Christian world. The emperor Constantine the Great, who finally brought an end to the horrific persecutions, issued a law of toleration in 313 and is said to have built the first church under the patronage of St. George. There do exist two ruins of churches dedicated to his name and bear the dated inscriptions of 346 and 367.

Iconography of this saint has him seated astride a white horse slaying a dragon which is representative of the evil effects the devil introduces into the world. Evil is thus overcome by the virtue of the saint.

It is interesting to note that martyrs are invoked with their intercession by the Church during the marriage ceremony. After the bride and groom have been crowned, a hymn to the martyrs, invoking their intercession for the married couple is sung. Marriage is considered by the Church to be a holy and living martyrdom where each partner dies to the sin in himself to advance the holiness and cause of the other. Thus a witness for Christ is called upon and is offered as a challenge to those entering the grace of this sacramental Mystery.

As were celebrate this popular feast of St. George, particularly during this week of Christ's Passion, let us commit ourselves to be living witnesses for the truth of the Saviour by sacrificing our time and investing it in witness to the moments of Christ's passion and death for us on the cross. May we live the martyrdom of the modern day where actual death is not so likely to be required of us, but death to sin, most assuredly is vital and necessary. May we be inspired by the challenge of St. Paul, another martyr, "For me to live is Christ."

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