Tuesday, May 6, 2014

St. George and the Dragon: Homily for St. George's Day Evensong

One of my earliest childhood memories is of taking family vacations in southern Austria. We always stayed in the same little town on the Worthersee lake, a place where my father had been one of the liberating Allied troops at the end of World War 2 and where he was always welcomed back as a hero. We frequently took the ferry across the lake to see the Lindwurm in the center of Klagenfurt am Worthersee. The Lindwurm is a great stone representation of the swamp-dwelling dragon that a millennium ago roamed the area around the Worthersee lake and which was eventually killed by a brave knight, allowing the establishment of the town. So you could say my association with dragons goes back a long way.

I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1960's, and the display of a St. George cross was a good way to get shot in some parts of the province, even if it was somewhat camouflaged by the overlay of other flags in the Union Jack. I remember having to learn the component crosses: St. Andrew's diagonal white cross on a blue ground; St Patrick's red diagonal Cross on a white ground; and the red St. George's Cross on a white ground, dominating the whole thing. Perhaps tellingly, the flag of Wales, which features a red dragon, is not represented in the Union Jack at all. The dragon has been completely vanquished by George. No wonder the other British peoples look a little askance at the union flag.

All the best adventure stories feature dragons. The ancient Greeks had the Kraken; the Bible has the Beast of Revelation; Tolkien has Smaug; and CS Lewis includes a dragon in one of his Narnia books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Perhaps you remember the story: Eustace, an obnoxious, greedy, and imagination-challenged little boy, goes off on his own and gets predictably lost. Lewis describes Eustace's discovery through the boy's own eyes.
At the bottom of a cliff a little on his left hand was a low, dark hole the entrance to a cave perhaps. And out of this two thin wisps of smoke were coming, And the loose stones just beneath the dark hollow were moving just as if something were crawling in the dark behind them. Something WAS crawling. Worse still, something was coming out. Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books. The thing that came out oft he cave was something he had never even imagined - a long lead-coloured snout, dull red eyes, no feathers or fur, a long, lithe body that trailed on the ground, legs whose elbows went up higher than its back like a spider's, cruel claws, bat's wings that made a rasping noise on the stones, yards of tail. And the two lines of smoke were coming from its two nostrils. He never said the word "Dragon" to himself. Nor would it have made things any better if he had.
Eustace witnesses the death of this dragon, and he takes a nap on top of the dragon's hoard of treasure. When he wakes up, he has been transformed into a dragon, and he instantly realizes why. "Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself."

Eustace the dragon quickly realizes how horribly lonely it is to be a terror. He is utterly miserable and pathetically grateful when his human friends accept him in his new form. His dragon experience is mercifully brief, as Aslan the lion soon comes to him and invites him to strip away his scaly armor. Eustace is unable to do the whole job by himself, and the last layer has to be removed, very painfully, by the lion. Eustace tells the story:
"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt.... Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off ... and there it was lying on the grass. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch... Then he caught hold of me and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment... I had turned into a boy again."
Eustace the dragon is restored, even reborn, as Eustace the boy, and in that rebirth he has begun a spiritual transformation into someone much more lovable than he was before. Maybe you know someone who needs to be undragoned. Maybe you need to be undragoned yourself. Maybe there are layers of armor or scales on each of us that need to be stripped away by divine power. Maybe St. George himself, the pure and virtuous knight that he was, slew a dragon within himself when he gave himself to Christ. According to historians, the real dragon in the story of St. George is the Emperor Diocletian, who had George put to death for his Christian faith.

There are dragons in our world today: dragons of hatred, poverty, greed. The center of Africa is filled with the dragons of greed: their hoard includes blood diamonds and so-called conflict minerals, including minerals that my iPad uses in its touch-screen. We feed the dragon with our appetite for new technology. Meanwhile the people who live in Congo are devastated as the rule of law breaks down and greedy individuals and factions form armies and lay waste the towns and farms, just as deadly as any dragon breathing fire out of the sky.

We Americans hoard so much of the world's wealth: does that make us into dragons? Who will slay the dragon of greed in our lives? Like Eustace, it is impossible for us to strip off that layer of dragon's skin: we will have to ask God to do it for us. And having done it, having been reborn in the character of George, courageous, pure, and loving, perhaps we will find the grace to go out and slay other dragons.

May the memory of St. George and the cross of courage be our companions in the battle.

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
May 4, 2014 

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