Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Saint George and the Code of Chivalry

The image of the brave and gallant Saint George rescuing the damsel in distress from the evil dragon has become a ubiquitous cultural symbol. It has been celebrated in countless instances of Christian iconography and art both in the Eastern and Western Church.  He is named as the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, Greece, Palestine, Georgia, and many other countries and provinces. Many churches—including our own—are also under his name and patronage. Despite his widespread fame, his actual history is somewhat hazy. 

Tradition tells us that he was a Roman soldier born in what is now modern-day Turkey in around 280AD and died around 303AD. He served in the retinue of the Emperor Diocletian in a time of intense persecution of the Church. Diocletian ordered that all Christians be forced to renounce their faith and offer traditional pagan sacrifices, but George refused. He was initially bribed with wealth and power, but when he still would not turn his back on Christ, he was tortured and eventually beheaded.

It is, however, the legendary tales of his heroic exploits, brought back by crusaders from the Holy Land, that has captured the imagination of Western Christendom. Saint George has become more of a mythical figure than a historical one. He has become an embodiment of the ideal Christian Knight and the traditional values of chivalry.
What is chivalry anyway? Put simply Chivalry was code of conduct which all honorable Christian knights were expected to embrace. Because they belonged to Jesus Christ and existed to promote and defend the cause of the gospel and the church of God, a Christian knight had to be one set apart, and exemplary in his conduct. He was to be a witness for the faith.

This morning, on our observance of St. George’s Day, I would like to say a bit about what he can teach us about that ancient code of chivalry and why I think it is still relevant for us today.  Particularly I want to focus on three “knightly virtues,” justice, valor, and piety.

The whole concept of chivalry has a bit of an ambivalent reputation these days, especially when it comes to its code of conduct around how men should relate to women. We frequently here the declaration, “Chivalry is dead.” Some say. “Good riddance!” The feminist journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, for instance, has described Chivalry as, “benevolent sexism.” It is benevolent because it flatters women with preferential treatment, but it is sexist because it rests on the premise that women are weak and incapable of helping themselves, while men are strong.
While it may be true that—in our increasingly egalitarian culture—the way men practice chivalry towards women needs to be adapted, when it is abandoned, the vulnerable suffer not the powerful.

Chivalry is not essentially about assuring male superiority, but about assuring justice. It is not about maintaining privilege but letting it go. Chivalry is about the strong and powerful willingly setting limitations upon themselves to protect the vulnerable from being trampled on.

 The code of Chivalry arose in the sometimes violent and barbaric time of the middle ages. It called upon men—and soldiers in particular—to temper their aggression and not to use strength and force to exploit or molest the vulnerable, particularly women and children. It made pillaging and harming non-combatants dishonorable. A Christian Knight must never use violence or power for greedy or selfish ends, but only in order to defend the weak and protect the common good.

Although Saint George was born into a noble family, he willingly identified with the Christian faith—a despised minority among the higher echelons of Roman society. He did not abandon his brothers and sisters in Christ, even when tempted with wealth and power, but laid down his life out of love for them.

Embracing the knightly, chivalrous virtue of Justice, today, means standing up for vulnerable minorities in our own community. It means privileging the needs of the disadvantaged above our own power and comfortability.   
The brave knight in shining armor seems quaint and old fashioned to many today, but our culture has its own romantic depictions of courage and heroism. The increasingly popular genre of Super-Hero stories offers many examples of the chivalrous virtue of valor. A great example comes from the recent blockbuster film, Captain America: Civil War. Cap is an excellent example of valor, not just because he does battle with the bad guys, but because he stays true to his principles even when it is difficult. There is a great quote from the movie,

“Compromise where you can. And where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty to plant yourself like a tree by the river of truth, look them in the eye and say, no. You move.”

The true Christian Knight must be a person of conviction. Valor is about having the faith as well as strength of mind and spirit to go against the grain when things are running in the wrong direction. It about having the courage to stand up for what is right. It is about planting your feet firmly and facing the dragon with bravery when everyone else is running away.

We admire the fanciful story of Saint George’s courageous battle with the dragon, but his real act of valor was facing down the terrible might of the Roman Empire, staying true to his faith, and giving his life for Christ. Hopefully none of us, will be called to martyrdom it that sense, but we all can be witnesses to the faith by staying true to the principles of the Gospel in a sometimes hostile world.

Our reading this morning from Revelation tells the story Saint Michael the archangel and his own battle with a dragon, Satan the ancient enemy of God’s people. Now angels don’t actually fight with swords and spears, because they don’t have bodies, they fight instead with ideas and principles. The powerful weapon that Satan used to lead God’s people astray was pride. The weapon with which Michael defeated and cast out Satan was humility. His name is a question. It means, “Who is like God?” While Satan put himself above God, Michael—out of devotion to God—put God above himself.

It is this humility and devotion to God that is at the heart of the knightly virtue of piety. It is no accident that the iconography of St. George and Saint Michael are so similar. Both are usually shown towering over a crushed and defeated serpent. These images represent the conquering of the lower nature by the higher, the triumph of good over evil.

The Christian Knight knows that the real battle is not between flesh and blood, but the violence, the cruelty, greed, and the selfishness in his own heart—with his own sinful nature. Like King David, he knows that the real way to defeat this giant is not with the sword, but through the power of God.

Saint George isn’t a saint because of his military prowess or skill with a horse and a spear. He is a Saint because his but his faith in God and shared in the victory of Christ over the power of sin. If we put our faith in God, we too can crush the serpent under our feet through the might of Jesus Christ.

Saint George would be the first one to direct us not to his own justice, valor, and piety, but to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is the true embodiment of Chivalry. He did not see his divine glory as something to be used only for his own advantage, but he emptied himself, and took the form of a servant. Jesus laid down his life for his bride the church. He gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her and present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. He spoke truth to power and drank the cup his father gave him to drink even when it meant torture and crucifixion. He lived the perfect life of obedience to the will of the father and conquered our sinful nature by the cross. He crushed the head of the serpent and the serpent bruised his heal.

All that we admire and seek to emulate in Saint George we find first in our Lord. Like Saint George, let us be true Christian Knights. Let our lives also glorify Christ. Let us love justice. Let us have courage, and let us be devoted to our God! 

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